What Qualifies As Workplace Sexual Harassment?

#MeToo. That’s the hashtag throwing a harsh spotlight on the hidden world of sexual harassment right now.

Almost half of the working women in the USA say they have been harassed at work. Our working environment is a huge part of our lives, but often one we have very little control over. So when expectations of professionalism fall short, it causes extreme personal distress.

But what exactly counts as workplace sexual harassment? We’re taking a look at it below.

The Legal Background

Legal protection against sexual harassment in the USA falls under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act (1964).

Title VII protects employees from harassment based on their sex and includes a laundry list of inappropriate behavior. However, Title VII only applies to businesses with over 15 employees at a federal level, and individual states have their own thresholds.

Sadly, this means Title VII only covers an estimated 34% of US businesses. And it’s believed that in many cases, sexual harassment in the workplace goes unreported.

It’s also worth considering that Type VII doesn’t rule out all sexual conduct in a workplace. That’s why it’s often difficult for sexual harassment cases to establish what actions explicitly count as sexual harassment.

Many victims of sexual harassment aren’t confident enough to speak up. Often they’re unsure that the law is actually on their side. Other times, they may be concerned for their job or hesitant to act due to the status of the perpetrator.

Even when victims do speak up, incidents may end up swept under the rug by complicit parties. It’s this uphill struggle which makes it important to know what your legal rights are.

What Does The Law Say?

The law breaks workplace sexual harassment into two broad categories of sexual harassment behavior: quid pro quo, and a hostile working environment. Let’s tackle them separately.

Quid Pro Quo

Quid pro quo harassment is a “something for something” form of workplace sexual harassment. This takes the form of a colleague expecting an inappropriate gesture for advancement in the workplace.

In severe cases, this could be a manager trying to solicit sexual favors in exchange for a promotion or pay rise. These situations often involve an explicit request.

But there are more subtle examples, too. Something as “harmless” as asking for a date in exchange for advancement is also a form of sexual harassment. It turns what should be a professional conversation into something deeply personal.

Quid pro quo requests may be explicit, but they can also be implicit. A clear expectation for quid pro quo behavior may still be illegal.

Hostile Working Environment

The other recognized category of workplace sexual harassment is the hostile working environment.

Hostile environments are usually defined as those causing emotional distress to employees through the use of inappropriate language or actions.

A hostile working environment can take many forms. It could be a chauvinistic boss making verbal advances on staff, or a supervisor with wandering hands.

But sexual harassment isn’t always targeted at the individual. A hostile working environment is also a form of workplace sexual harassment.

Lawyers will look at the number of individuals affected and any patterns of behavior to help establish the nature and severity of a sexual harassment case.

The Gray Areas

Sadly, it’s not always 100% clear what counts as sexual harassment. This is one of the reasons sexual harassment isn’t always dealt with as it should be.

Some of this is down to the vagaries of human interaction. In a completely professional world, nobody would have personal conversations in the workplace.

But the reality is that a workplace involves many ordinary people often working in close quarters. The workplace forms a huge part of the adult social environment. It’s common for colleagues to establish a rapport or even lasting friendships.

It’s this rapport that HR turns to when it comes to deciding whether behavior counts as sexual harassment. Playful flirting between friends, for example, is not prohibited under Type VII.

The heart of the question is whether perceived affectionate gestures like a compliment or a hug are classed as sexual harassment.

This is a multi-layered issue. There are questions of established intimacy, appropriate workplace conduct, and consent – even the specific words used can introduce ambiguity.

If you believe you’re a victim of sexual harassment, it’s important you make clear the ways in which you feel the individual’s behavior has overstepped social boundaries.

What Can You Do?

If you’re not sure whether your case counts as sexual harassment, speaking to an experienced lawyer will help you. Sexual harassment lawyers are familiar with the complexities of sexual harassment in the workplace and could help guide you through it.

If you believe you’re being sexually harassed in the workplace, one of the best things you can do is to create a record of it. Document any experiences you’ve had that you would consider sexual harassment.

Other colleagues may complain of similar behaviors. If so, include these with your documentation.

If your company has an HR department, it’s often best to contact them in the first place regarding your treatment. But you may not feel comfortable or adequately protected by HR, so seek advice if this doesn’t seem feasible to you.

It isn’t always easy to speak up about sexual harassment. Many victims fear reprisal or a coverup if they “rock the boat”.

But it’s important to seek help. Sexual harassment may lead to depression and anxiety, and there’s no telling how many colleagues may have suffered similar behavior. Speaking to a lawyer is a good way to confidentially discuss your concerns.

You should also seek emotional support if you’re being harassed at work. Speaking to friends, family, or a therapist will ensure you don’t suffer alone. Silence is the greatest enemy to exposing incidents of sexual harassment.

Seek Advice About Workplace Sexual Harassment

We know that sexual harassment in the workplace is a complex issue. If you believe you’re in a sexual harassment situation, it’s vital that you seek advice to find out what your legal options are.

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