Sexual harassment is a form of workplace discrimination which has received increasing attention in the courts since its recognition nearly forty years ago. Sexual harassment has grown from its original quid pro quo formulation to include harassment by peers and the creation of hostile environments.
In the classic quid pro quo case, a supervisor is conditioning some facet of employment on sexual favors. The aspect of employment could be a raise or promotion, more favorable working conditions, or keeping one's job altogether. Sexual favors can range from agreeing to see the supervisor socially to outright demands for sex. While asking a subordinate out on a date is not sexual harassment per se, any conditioning of favorable or unfavorable job action on the employee's acceptance or refusal can be the basis for a sexual harassment lawsuit.
While quid pro quo discrimination still occurs, the majority of cases these days involve claims of a hostile work environment. A hostile environment is created by the presence of unwelcome behavior of a sexual nature that is pervasive to a degree that the conduct creates an intimidating atmosphere that interferes with employee performance. While a hostile environment cannot be specifically defined, examples of behavior that could create a hostile environment include:
- Unwelcome touching; impeding or blocking movements
- Verbal sexual abuse: sexually explicit language, "dirty jokes," inappropriate comments
- Sexually suggestive letters or notes, graffiti in bathrooms, pornographic pictures or cartoons in workspaces, locker rooms or lounges
- Obscene, rude, or inappropriate gestures
Most recently, the law in this area has evolved to include harassment by peers (not just supervisors), reverse discrimination (women harassing males), and issues of same-sex harassment (males harassing males; females harassing females).
The first recourse for one who has been harassed is usually reporting the sexual harassment to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). The EEOC will investigate within six months and then either take action on its own or issue the employee a "right to sue" letter, which does not comment on whether the employee has a good lawsuit or not, but merely means that the individual has exhausted required administrative remedies and is free to pursue a private action in court. State law may offer or require additional steps.
Sexual harassment is only one form of discrimination protected by law. For information on other protected areas, see our page on discrimination/wrongful discharge. If you believe you have been the victim of unlawful discrimination, contact the Carter Law Firm today to right those wrongs.