BY Eric J. Handelman for Lawyers.com
Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1984 bans several types of illegal discrimination in the workplace, as well as sexual harassment. Sexual harassment at work occurs when an employee makes unwelcome sexual advances toward another employee. These would include requests for sexual favors, or other unwanted verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature. This harassment becomes illegal when it reasonably interferes with work performance or creates an intimidating, hostile or offensive working environment. The harassment is also illegal if your refusal could affect the terms and conditions of your employment.
Categories of Sexual Harassment
There are two categories of sexual harassment: Quid pro quo sexual harassment and hostile environment sexual harassment.
Quid pro quo sexual harassment is conduct that requires an employee to submit to sexual demands as a condition of employment. Generally, the harasser threatens you or implies that if you don't give in, you'll lose your job, receive a bad performance rating, or suffer some other negative consequence.
Hostile environment sexual harassment involves harassment of an employee, based on his or her gender, to the point where the working environment becomes hostile. The conduct may include unwelcome contact or comments.
Who Is Protected?
Both male and female employees are protected against workplace sexual harassment under state and federal laws. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 applies to companies with 15 or more employees. Employees in smaller companies are usually protected under similar state anti-discrimination laws. While federal law prohibits both opposite sex and same sex harassment, not every state protects against same sex harassment.
Elements of a Sexual Harassment Claim
If you think you are being sexually harassed at work, you should discuss the harassment with an HR representative, a member of the company's legal department a supervisor or another person in a position of authority who is not involved in the harassment. Your company's anti-harassment policy may identify a person who handles such claims.
If you are unable to report the harassment to a company manager, if the harassment continues after you report it or if you are dissatisfied with the resolution, you can file a complaint with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission or a similar state agency.
Under Title VII, the EEOC handles claims for sexual harassment at work if the harassment is severe or so pervasive that it alters the conditions of your employment and creates an abusive working environment.
Factors in determining whether your working environment is sufficiently hostile or abusive include:
- The frequency of the conduct;
- The severity of the conduct;
- Whether the harassment is physically threatening or humiliating; or
- Whether the harassment is a one-time offensive utterance; and
- Whether the harassment unreasonably interferes with your work performance
You would need to demonstrate you told the offending person to stop the conduct because you found it unwelcome. This is necessary because the harasser may argue that he or she thought the conduct was welcome.
If you have been a sexual harassment victim, you'll need to file a complaint with the EEOC within 180 days of the harassment. Under certain circumstances, you may be able to file a claim for harassment that happened more than 180 days ago, but it's in your best interest to file a complaint promptly.