What is Sexual Harassment?

What is Sexual Harassment

Sexual harassment continues to be a serious issue in New Jersey, Pennsylvania and across the United States. Victims of harassment may suffer from emotional injuries for years. Understanding how to understand what is acceptable and unlawful can help. It is also important to understand how courts analyze claims of sexual harassment.

What is sexual harassment?

Under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, sexual harassment is forbidden as a type of illegal sex discrimination. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission defines sexual harassment as conduct including unwanted sexual advances, sexual requests and other physical or verbal acts of a sexual nature. When a person’s work is affected by sexual harassment, unreasonably interferes with it or creates a hostile work environment, the conduct is prohibited under the law. There are two forms of workplace sexual harassment, quid pro quo and hostile work environment. In quid pro quo cases, a supervisor or other person in authority asks for sex in exchange for favors or for not terminating the employee. In hostile work environment cases, sexual harassment may include offensive threats or jokes and may include sexual photographs. The offensive behavior has to be pervasive enough that a hostile work environment is created by it.

How courts apply the definition of sexual harassment to the facts

Courts may vary in their application of the definition of sexual harassment to the facts, leaving some inconsistency with court rulings. Sometimes, courts will have different opinions about whether sexual harassment has happened in two different cases with similar facts. This is more common with hostile work environment cases. For example, a court may rule that an unwanted advance did not rise to the level of pervasive behavior that is required to prove that a hostile work environment was created while it may rule in another case that similar behavior was sufficient.

The Supreme Court of the United States has ruled that employers may defend themselves in cases alleging hostile work environments by presenting evidence that they took reasonable steps in order to prevent it from occurring. Employers are also allowed to argue that they are not liable if employees did not use their companies’ reporting procedures to complain.

Factors for review

When analyzing a claim of a hostile work environment, a court will consider several factors, including the following:

  • How often the inappropriate behavior occurred
  • How severe the alleged behavior was
  • The victim’s own conduct
  • The context in which the harassment happened
  • How large the employer’s business is
  • The nature of the employment

In a claim involving a hostile work environment, a judge will also consider whether or not a reasonable person in the same situation would have found the environment to be hostile.

Myths about sexual harassment

There are several myths about sexual harassment. One is that only women are harassed. Courts have held that men are harassed in some cases as well. It is also a myth that a woman can’t harass other women and men can’t harass other men. The Supreme Court has stated that sexual harassment can happen between people of the same gender. The Supreme Court has also held that sexual harassment can occur in schools by individuals who are in authority over students. Finally, some people wrongly believe that only managers or supervisors can be harassers. People may be harassed by coworkers or third parties. The key in such cases is whether or not the employer knew about the conduct and if the employer did anything to correct it.

If you have been the victim of sexual harassment, it is important for you to seek the advice of a competent employment law attorney at Swartz Swidler. Contact us to schedule your consultation today.