What is workplace sexual harassment?

People are talking about workplace sexual harassment. This is a good thing. People generally agree, thankfully, that sexual harassment is a practice that has no business existing in the modern world, including the modern workplace. But that agreement ends when people start debating what actually constitutes workplace sexual harassment. The law can shed some light.

Workplace sexual harassment has been around for as long as there have been workplaces. However, recently, the issue of workplace sexual harassment has been dominating the news. Reports of sexual harassment by men like Bill O’Reilly and Harvey Weinstein have made headlines. No workplace is immune from the scourge of sexual harassment. Uber, Fidelity, and even state capitols including Rhode Island’s have recently been the subjects of deep examinations into workplace sexual harassment. The spotlight on workplace sexual harassment has made it possible for more and more women to come forward and share their stores. Removing the stigma attached to complaining about sexual harassment is a vital first step toward eradicating this disgusting practice. Nobody should be forced to choose between their career and their well-being. But much is still unknown about both the prevalence of workplace sexual harassment and, importantly, how it is defined. While workplace sexual harassment can involve many different types of behavior, state and federal law recognizes two general forms: (1) quid pro quo sexual harassment, where a supervisor threatens punishment for refusing to comply with sexual demands; and (2) a hostile work environment.

Quid pro quo harassment is generally a straightforward analysis. It is an easy target and the one most people think about when they hear the phrase workplace sexual harassment. But hostile work environments, which can be more complicated to analyze, are more prevalent but less likely to result in a complaint.

To show the existence of a hostile work environment, a complainant must demonstrate that the harassment was sufficiently severe or pervasive so as to alter the conditions of employment and create an abusive work environment. She must also show that the sexually objectionable conduct was both objectively and subjectively offensive, such that a reasonable person would find it hostile or abusive, and the victim in fact did perceive it to be so. Some of the factors relevant to this determination are: the frequency of the discriminatory conduct, its severity, whether it is physically threatening or humiliating or a mere offensive utterance, and whether it unreasonably interferes with an employee’s work performance.

The law does not protect against genuine but innocuous difference in the ways men and women routinely interact with members of the same sex and the opposite sex. Teasing, offhand comments, and isolated incidents (unless extremely serious) will generally not amount to discriminatory changes in the terms and conditions of employment.

Unfortunately, employees are far less likely to raise hostile work environment claims. Because there is no quid pro quo or threat of punishment in the face of a demand for sex, many employees assume they do not have a strong case. They are also made to feel (both by their employer and certain members of the public) that they should simply “toughen up” and accept the harassment. But a hostile work environment can be just as abusive, and sometimes more so, than a pure quid pro quo workplace environment.

Enright law represents employees who have been the victim of workplace sexual harassment and seeks to obtain all remedies and damages available to its clients. Contact Enright Law if you believe you may be the victim of workplace sexual harassment.

(photo: https://www.flickr.com/photos/donkeyhotey/99251418…)

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