Business people know the basics of sexual harassment in the workplace:
- Don’t demand sex from your employees.
- Don’t display pornographic materials in the building.
- Don’t fondle your workers.
- Don’t base employment decisions on sex – or sexual orientation.
But a lot more is involved. Did you know:
- Clueless doesn’t cut it. The employer is liable if he knew – or should have known – sexual harassment was going on at his shop and failed to take appropriate corrective action. “Should have known” covers a lot of ground.
- A company is also responsible for the sexual harassment by its vendors and customers.
- The victim does not have to be personally harassed, but could be anyone affected by the offensive conduct.
- Anyone can be sexually harassed by anyone else; women can sexually harass men or even other women just as easily as men can harass women.
- The cost of sexual harassment – beyond the damages awarded in successful lawsuits – includes absenteeism, lower productivity, increased health-care costs, poor morale, employee turnover, and loss of reputation, customers and revenue.
Sex in the workplace
Sexual harassment is about discrimination, not about sex, and is therefore covered by Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
In the last 50 years, Congress and the courts have amended Title VII to permit victims of sexual harassment to recover damages (including punitive) as well as making “injury” easier to prove, although injury is not necessary to prove sexual harassment.
Sexual harassment falls into two distinct categories – tangible job benefit and hostile work environment.
The quid pro quo of demanding that an employee provide sex for employment considerations is fairly easy to recognize. In these cases, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) states, “an employer will be held strictly liable” – not only for the actions of his employees, but third-party suppliers as well.
The “hostile work environment” may not be quite so apparent.
A hostile work environment occurs when a co-worker or supervisor, “engaging in unwelcome and inappropriate sexually based behavior, renders the workplace atmosphere intimidating, hostile, or offensive,” according to the EEOC.
Does this mean you can’t compliment a co-worker on his attire?
Well, it depends. “That’s a nice outfit” is way different from “I really like the way you fill out your trousers.”
Courts use a “reasonable person” standard when it comes to determine what is offensive, and most reasonable people would be offended by such a remark in the workplace.
Does it mean you can’t tease people?
Teasing is OK – as are offhand comments, jokes and isolated incidents – as long as they are not “extremely serious.” What the heck is “extremely serious”? I’m pretty sure it’s one of those “I’ll know it when I hear it” kinds of things. If you’re like me and love a good joke, be judicious about what you say and who you tell.
Does it mean you can’t carry on an office romance? Some estimate that as many as 30% of marriages originate in the workplace. You practically spend your life there, so that’s not much of a surprise.
But make no mistake: A boss who sleeps with an employee is looking for trouble, pure and simple. Any job action – raises, discipline, promotions, transfers, etc. – taken by the boss can be construed as sexual harassment, either by the employee/lover or other employees.
Even consensual sexual relationships between co-workers can have destructive potential. And the employer is responsible for all of it, even if he was ignorant as to what was going on. I’m OK with that: If, as a supervisor, you don’t have the open communication and trust levels necessary to learn about sexual harassment, you’re not worthy of the title.
Underlying all of it is whether the attention – whether it is sexual propositions or off-color jokes – is unwelcome and unwanted. Training or business coaching can help in these situations.
Where does your company stand? Ask yourself:
- How can I prevent sexual harassment at work?
- What are my company’s policies and procedures on sexual harassment?
- How do I enforce the policy?
- What issues are covered?
- What kind of training do I have regarding sexual harassment?
If you have no policy in place, do it now. Don’t get caught with your pants down.
Do you know anyone who has been sexually harassed on the job? If so, what was the outcome? Please share in the comments.
Beverley Golden says
Sexual harassment as a widespread issue, is finally getting the high profile attention it has deserved for decades! I just read that as a young reporter, Oprah was being sexually harassed by a man in the workplace and knew she could do nothing! If she reported it, she knew it would be the end of her career. That was the culture back then.
I’ve also seen actresses say something very similar. That they had no recourse, but to step away from their acting careers or to endure it. With the #MeToo movement, it feels like finally, the issue cannot be ignored or suppressed ever again. I also found it interesting to read in your post and also to hear that so often either the company doesn’t have a policy, or at the very least, employees don’t know what the company’s policy on sexual harassment is. Thanks for sharing a wealth of information for all of us to consider, Jackie!
Jackie Harder says
I appreciate your comments and your historical perspective, too, Beverley. I’ve had men underestimate me because I was a woman (to their everlasting chagrin) but only had one boss try to put the moves to me. I laughed it off, like he was joking, and it never came up again. So to speak. Companies that don’t have sexual harassment policies in place, or provide training for ALL employees — including management — are looking for serious trouble.
Candess M. Campbell says
So happy you wrote this Jackie! It is the responsibility of men (and women) to know what sexual harassment is and to behave appropriately. People do not get sued or fired for an accidental comment, but becoming more aware is important.
Some of the feedback to the #MeToo movement has been catering to men, saying they don’t understand or know what to say or do. With so much information at our fingertips, that is ridiculous. You have just supported the solution and for that I am grateful!
Jackie Harder says
Thank you for your kind words, Candess. The people who say they “don’t understand” really mean they don’t understand how something they’ve done for years with impunity can suddenly be a no-no.
Reba Linker says
I really appreciate this article, Jackie, especially your clarification on what constitutes a ‘hostile environment.’ It is so important for all of us to understand that what may have been acceptable in the past may not be so today. Thank you for helping to raise awareness.
Jackie Harder says
Good point about what we’ve tolerated in the past, Reba. I think we become inured to it — the catcalls, the whistles, the staring at our boobs. We don’t even notice it anymore. Of course, for me, it’s now about ageism, as in “Whoo-ee! Look at that hot car Granny is driving!” 🙂 I told the guy to perform an anatomically impossible act upon himself.
Rachel Lavern says
I don’t personally know anyone who has been a victim of sexual harassment. Several times I have heard the argument some men make that we (women) overreact to sexual harassment. I am sure that some of those men are just ignorant. Then again, men have been known to try to downplay our concerns. Regardless, ignorance is not bliss is this instance.
Jackie Harder says
Years ago, I worked with a woman who was raped by our boss. This same guy never came on to me, mostly because I didn’t give off the same “victim” vibe as my colleague did. Rachel, I think sexual harassment is so ingrained in our culture that we women don’t even notice it. Appreciate your comments.
Lorii Abela says
I am glad you are talking about this. It is extremely important. It is not merely the responsibility of human resources department to be policing inappropriateness nowadays, it is of everyone. One time, I saw my husband watching a video of their company policies they have in place regarding this topic.
Jackie Harder says
That’s great news. Everyone needs to be educated about sexual harassment, particularly in this #MeToo age. Thanks for stopping by, Lorii.
THANK YOU for this. I think that too often, people downplay sexual harassment at work. Comments such as “I was only kidding” doesn’t cut it anymore.
My husband’s company did a yearly “Sexual Harassment Refresher” course for all employees, not matter how long they’ve been there. I think it’s a good thing.
This is especially true when working with different cultures and different countries. What might be acceptable in one situation may not for others. The more we talk about this and have open dialogue, the safer we all can feel in our work (and other places) environment.
Jackie Harder says
Excellent points, Claudette. And BTW — “I was kidding/joking” is a fairly typical passive/aggressive bullying technique on top of (in this case) sexual harassment. I think annual refresher classes on the topic are important, since the landscape can change so rapidly in this area. Never hurts to be reminded in any event. Thanks for stopping by.