Sexual harassment can take many different forms. From gestures and constant jokes to inappropriate touching, it creates a hostile work environment. Employers must watch for signs and put in place reporting procedures to ensure a respectful work environment.
Title VII of the Civil Rights Act prohibits sexual harassment, which is a form of sex discrimination. Title VII applies to many employers, including those with 15 or more employees, employment agencies, labor organization and state, local and federal government offices.
Any unwelcome sexual advance - verbal or physical in nature - that affects or interferes with an individual's employment or creates an offensive, intimidating and hostile work environment is sexual harassment. A variety of circumstances lead up to these complaints, for example:
- An immediate supervisor may routinely say obscene things he or she would like to do to the victim. Co-workers, non-employees and managers of other departments also could be at fault if they join in with the conduct.
- The victim and harasser do not need to be of opposite genders, if the conduct is unwelcome.
Those affected by sexual harassment should tell the person who is making the comments that they are offensive and unwelcome. If the behavior persists, follow the employer complaint process to escalate the issue.
The U.S. Equal Employments Opportunity Commission investigates allegations of sexual harassment. Each investigation looks at the nature of the sexual advances and the context in which they occurred. While investigations handle situations after the fact, the EEOC encourages employers to put in place training and zero tolerance policies to prevent sexual harassment at the workplace.
For those who fear making a complaint, it is important to realize that it is unlawful for your employer to retaliate against you for filing a charge or participating with an investigation under Title VII.
Recent example of a sexual harassment claim
Some bad behavior continues over years when no one complains for fear of losing a job. For instance, a housekeeper at UNC-Chapel Hill recently won a case in which she argued that her employer failed to protect her from sexual harassment.
The housekeeper's supervisor sexually groped her, threatened her and made offensive comments. A hidden tape recorder provided proof of what was happening and the university fired the supervisor. Yet after an on-the-job injury later in the same year, the housekeeper received a more difficult assignment. She alleged that the director of housekeeping made her life tougher after she filed the sexual harassment complaint.
The case forced the university to look closer at its procedures for handling sexual assault and harassment claims. While the housekeeper is still working in her position, the director of housekeeping resigned.
If you are being sexually harassed at your workplace and the environment is becoming more hostile by the day, contact an employment law attorney. Asking that the behavior stop and reporting it to your employer are good first steps, but when that does not result in change, a lawyer can suggest further remedies and assist you through the process.