Sexual Harassment in the Workplace Defined

Workplace sexual harassment can take many forms, and employers can be held liable for harassment they failed to prevent.

By , J.D., University of Missouri School of Law

Sexual harassment is a form of sex discrimination that violates Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) is the federal agency that enforces this law. The EEOC receives and investigates complaints of sexual harassment in the workplace.

In its investigations, the EEOC considers the circumstances and context in which the alleged incidents occurred and makes its determinations from the facts on a case-by-case basis.

What Is Workplace Sexual Harassment?

Sexual harassment includes unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature. There are two types of sexual harassment recognized by federal law: quid pro quo and hostile work environment.

What Is Quid Pro Quo Sexual Harassment?

Quid pro quo refers to situations where employment decisions such as hiring, firing, or promotions are contingent upon the employee providing sexual favors. Examples of quid pro quo sexual harassment are when a supervisor threatens to fire an employee who does not submit to sexual advances or where a supervisor promises to promote an employee in exchange for sexual favors.

What Is Hostile Work Environment Sexual Harassment?

Hostile work environment sexual harassment refers to situations where the employee's work environment is made intimidating, hostile, or offensive due to the unwelcome sexual conduct, and the conduct unreasonably interferes with the employee's work performance.

This could take the form of unwanted sexual advances by a fellow employee, but it need not involve sexual advances at all. Examples of hostile work environment sexual harassment include:

  • making offensive sexual comments or jokes
  • discussions about sex, or
  • the display of sexually oriented photos or cartoons.

The victim of sexual harassment can be either a man or a woman. The harasser may be either a man or a woman as well. The victim and the harasser do not have to be of the opposite sex. The victim does not have to be the person to whom the sexual conduct is directed but could be anyone affected by the offensive conduct.

Employer's Duty to Maintain a Workplace Free From Sexual Harassment

Employers should establish a policy for the prevention, reporting, investigation, and punishment of sexual harassment in the workplace. It is the employer's responsibility to maintain a workplace that is free from sexual harassment. (For more information, read How to Effectively Implement a Sexual Harassment Policy.)

An employer can be held liable for sexual harassment committed by their employees whether or not the employee is in a supervisory position. The employer can also be held liable for sexual harassment committed by non-employees.

Therefore, it is in the employer's best interest to prevent sexual harassment in the workplace and, if sexual harassment occurs, to take remedial action as quickly as possible.

When to Contact an Employment Attorney

If you've experienced sexual harassment at work, report it immediately to your company's human resources department. Then consider speaking with an employment attorney to discuss your legal options.

You can get a free case evaluation from a local attorney on our website. Or consult our Lawyer Directory to find an experienced employment attorney in your area.

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