Sexual Harassment at Work

Author: Yana Alexis. St. Clair, Esq.

Sexual Harassment at Work

In our continuing quest in discussing harassment in the work place, and how to curb it, we now specifically turn to the rather unpleasant matter of sexual harassment. Both women, and men, often experience unprovoked advances throughout their daily lives, but such interactions are all the more uncomfortable, and disturbing, when they occur in a professional environment, where one is unable to escape, and too frequently afraid to address the situation, perhaps in fear of retribution, whether by a superior or coworker.

The following guidelines, as provided by the United States Equal Employment Commission, offer the essential concepts to keep in mind in the workforce.  All employees should keep these standards in mind as to ensure not to offend or harass fellow employees, as well as to protect themselves from potential harassment.

The law is as follows:

  • It is unlawful to harass a person (an applicant or employee) because of that person’s sex. Harassment can include “sexual harassment” or unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical harassment of a sexual nature
  • Harassment does not have to be of a sexual nature, however, and can include offensive remarks about a person’s sex.  For example, it is illegal to harass a woman by making offensive comments about women in general
  • Both 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

While this is a rather brief summation of legal guidelines, it is crucial to keep in mind that it is in no way a comprehensive test.  Many courts, and to a degree common sense, often follow the "eggshell theory" which essentially states that you must take the victim as they come. 
In tort, or in laymen's terms, personal injury law, it means that if an individual who is injured in an accident happens to be more susceptible to pain, bruising, etc., due to a pre-existing condition, the defendant is still liable for additional damages, even if a fully functional, healthy human being would not have encountered equal medical complications. 
The same logic can be applied to sexual harassment cases.  Some individuals may be more sensitive to a comment, gesture or advance, which perhaps others may brush off as a joke, or at least pretend to.

The bottom line is, in the work place, we all must ensure that we treat everyone with the utmost respect, and never make a colleague or any other employee feel uncomfortable.  After all, we spend the majority of our life at the office.

In closing, I suppose the best rule of thumb would be, would you want someone to treat your mother, sister, father or daughter in such a manner that would cause them to feel uncomfortable, intimidated or diminished …

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