What Really Constitutes Sexual Harassment in the Workplace?

The latter part of 2017 may always be remembered as a watershed time in America’s cultural history regarding sexual harassment. After numerous women stepped forward and complained about the allegedly crude sexual behavior of Hollywood film producer Harvey Weinstein(1) and other men in high-ranking entertainment and news media positions, major corporations responded swiftly.

Men like Charlie Rose, the Today Show’s Matt Lauer – and even Garrison Keillor(2) were suddenly fired or saw valuable work contracts cancelled. Perhaps the earlier charges against Bill Cosby involving at least 50 women had played a role in convincing the public that far too many women may actually be suffering routine sexual harassment. Whatever caused this seismic shift in consciousness, a clear message was sent that all offensive sexual behavior in the workplace – regardless of the victim’s gender — must stop now.

However, since a small number of people still question some of these allegations, that issue should be briefly addressed now – before explaining much more basic information about what legally constitutes sexual harassment.

Are False Reports of Sexual Harassment Common?

Women usually gain nothing when sharing past stories about sexual harassment and abuse – especially when most are not rushing to nearby courthouses to file charges against those who mistreated them. There is no pride in sharing such stories – only a sense of vindication when believed. Furthermore, false reports of sexual harassment are rare. In fact, it’s currently estimated that they only constitute about five to seven percent of all allegations.

What follows now is a brief survey of how the EEOC (Equal Employment Opportunity Commission) and others define sexual harassment, along with specific examples of sexually offensive words and behaviors that should never be tolerated in any work-related environment. After all, everyone is more productive when treated with respect.

How Does the EEOC Define Workplace Sexual Harassment?

This unacceptable activity usually includes offensive words or behavior directed toward job applicants or employees by people in positions of authority (or co-workers). However, in some instances, sexual harassment can also include an employer’s customer or client behaving in a grossly offensive manner toward an employee.

All employers must recognize that sexual harassment is a type of sexual discrimination that is forbidden by Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. That law covers all workplaces with 15 or more employees – including people working for state and local governments. It also applies to members of labor organizations and those working for employment agencies and the federal government.

Sexual harassment may often be considered so offensive that a reasonable person might describe the workplace atmosphere as being intimidating or hostile. Although most sexual harassment tends to be directed at women – it should be emphasized that women may also be found liable for this type of illegal behavior.

While no list could ever fully indicate every set of words or behaviors that constitute sexual harassment, there’s one posted on the website of the United Nations that provides helpful guidance.

Words and Actions Frequently Considered Sexually Inappropriate in the Workplace

  • Repeatedly asking the same person to go out on a lunch date (or to various social events) with you when no special interpersonal relationship has been consensually established;
  • Touching other workers when there is no excuse to do so – or rubbing up against someone when there’s plenty of room to avoid doing so while handling your job;
  • Making offensive gestures with your fingers, hands or body in a manner that suggests that you would like to have sex with someone;
  • Handing out (or posting) offensive drawings or pictures involving sex that a reasonable person would know might be offensive to some people;
  • Making noises or sounds as though kissing another person or having some type of sex with them;
  • Spreading false sexual rumors about co-workers or others in the workplace in hopes of jeopardizing their job security;
  • Repeatedly telling jokes or stories about sexual “conquests” that others might consider offensive;
  • Looking at others in a manner that indicates that you are “sizing them up” sexually in a suggestive manner.

If you still find it hard to decide what’s acceptable workplace behavior – then always act as though every interaction you have with others at work is being videotaped and recorded. Better yet, simply treat everyone with the same level of respect in the workplace that you normally show to your most important clients or customers.

Please feel free to contact our office if you need help drafting the “sexual harassment” sections of your employee handbook or need advice on evaluating appropriate workplace training programs that address this topic. We can also help you evaluate any formal or informal sexual harassment complaints that employees may have filed with the EEOC or your human resources department.

(1) https://www.barna.com/research/behaviors-americans-count-as-harassment/?utm_source=Barna+Update+List&utm_campaign=59e62a6e6f-EMAIL_CAMPAIGN_2017_11_28&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_8560a0e52e-59e62a6e6f-171985045&mc_cid=59e62a6e6f&mc_eid=c0385fd205

(2) https://www.barna.com/research/behaviors-americans-count-as-harassment/?utm_source=Barna+Update+List&utm_campaign=59e62a6e6f-EMAIL_CAMPAIGN_2017_11_28&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_8560a0e52e-59e62a6e6f-171985045&mc_cid=59e62a6e6f&mc_eid=c0385fd205