What is Considered Sexual Harassment at Work?

Defining Workplace Sexual Harassment

Unwanted sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature are all considered workplace sexual harassment.

Sexual harassment is defined by a federal law called Title VII. The law goes on to explain that behavior constitutes sexual harassment when conduct explicitly or implicitly affects an individual’s employment, unreasonably interferes with an individual’s work performance, or creates an intimidating, hostile, or offensive work environment.

Further, harassment does not have to be of a sexual nature, however, and can include offensive remarks about a person’s sexual orientation. For example, it is illegal to harass a woman by making offensive comments about women in general.

Both the victim and the harasser can be either a woman or a man, and the victim and harasser can be the same sex.

Although the law doesn’t prohibit simple teasing, offhand comments, or isolated incidents that are not very serious, harassment is illegal when it is so frequent or severe that it creates a hostile or offensive work environment or when it results in an adverse employment decision (such as the victim being fired or demoted).

The harasser can be the victim’s supervisor, a supervisor in another area, a co-worker, or someone who is not an employee of the employer, such as a client or customer.

Is a Hostile Work Environment Sexual Harassment?

One way the federal law Title VII defines sexual harassment is when there is a hostile work environment.

An employee can sue under Title VII if the harassment is “sufficiently severe or pervasive to alter the conditions of [the victim’s] employment and create an abusive working environment.” Meritor Sav. Bank, FSB v. Vinson, 477 U.S. 57, 67 (1986)

Although the United States Supreme Court’s is clear that “Title VII comes into play before the harassing conduct leads to a nervous breakdown,” Harris v. Forklift Sys., Inc., 510 U.S. 17, 22 (1993), Eighth Circuit precedent in this region of the County sets a high bar for conduct to be sufficiently severe or pervasive in order to trigger a Title VII violation.

Some conduct well beyond the bounds of respectful and appropriate behavior is nonetheless insufficient to violate Title VII. McMiller v. Metro, 738 F.3d 185, 188 (8th Cir. 2013)

This is because while the individual doing the harassing may be responsible, in order to make the company responsible of a hostile environment, there must be more pervasive issues that affect the workplace.

For example, in a case where a supervisor sexually propositioned [the employee], repeatedly participated in unwanted physical contact, requested that she draw an image of a phallic object to demonstrate her qualification for a position, displayed a poster portraying the plaintiff as the “president and CEO of the Man Hater’s Club of America,” and asked her to type a copy of a “He-Men Women Hater’s Club” manifesto, the court held these facts were not sufficiently severe or pervasive enough to establish a Title VII hostile workplace claim.

What is Co-Worker Harassment?

To recover on a claim for a hostile work environment based on co-worker harassment, a plaintiff must show that: “(1) she belongs to a protected group; (2) she was subject to unwelcome sexual harassment; (3) the harassment was based on sex; (4) the harassment affected a term, condition, or privilege of employment; and (5) the employer knew or should have known of the harassment and failed to take proper remedial action.” Blomker v. Jewell, 831 F.3d 1051, 1056 (8th Cir. 2016); see also Vance v. Ball State Univ., 570 U.S. 421, 424 (2013) (“If the harassing employee is the victim’s co-worker, the employer is liable only if it was negligent in controlling working conditions.”).

What Kind of Behavior is Considered Sexual Harassment?

The following are some of the behaviors that could be considered sexual in nature:

1) Verbal Sexual Harassment in the Workplace

2) Non-Verbal Sexual Harassment at the Workplace

3) Physical Sexual Harassment or Sexual Assault

What Recourse Do I Have Against the Sexual Nature of a Hostile Workplace?

If you are the victim of sexual harassment, you may feel hesitant to file a complaint for many reasons. Your employer has better resources than you, and you could lose your job, but neither is a reason to put up with the mental (and physical) harm that a hostile workplace can inflict on you.

You can start with some or all of the following to remedy the situation:

  • Check with your human resources department about your employer’s workplace policy on unfair treatment.

  • Consider discussing the situation with the person(s) involved.

  • Raise the matter informally with your supervisor.

  • Making a formal complaint about unfair treatment at work and the hostile environment.

  • Escalating the case to a charge or civil suit with a qualified employment law attorney.

You must note that there are many ways to approach this issue, starting within your company, proceeding to government and federal agencies, and obtaining the professional help of a respected, empathetic, and thorough Little Rock employment lawyer.

What you don’t want to do is continue to “put up” with hostile workplace conditions that harm you, your co-workers, and your civil rights, such as unwanted physical contact, verbal harassment, sexual comments, or any other inappropriate behavior that might make you feel uncomfortable.

I Feel That I’m Working in a Hostile Workplace with Sexual Harassment; How Should I Proceed?

Sexual harassment at work and working in an environment with unwelcome sexual advances, sex discrimination, physical harassment, or unwanted touching will inevitably bring up or touch upon sensitive and very emotional issues. This often can result in emotional stress and complications, but so can doing nothing about the situation. If you are experiencing sexual harassment, consulting with a Little Rock or Fayetteville employment lawyer will allow you to obtain legal advice before filing a suit against your employer.

An experienced sexual harassment lawyer has the knowledge and guidance you require to help you understand your situation and assist with your complaint to your employer or in filing a sexual harassment claim.

It may not be easy, but it’s never the right decision to continue to struggle in a hostile workplace or to have experienced unwanted physical contact, physical contact intended to make you feel uncomfortable, or experienced sexual harassment in any other way, contact a sexual harassment attorney today. You have the right to work in a harassment free workplace and it is your employer’s responsibility to prevent workplace sexual harassment.