Under federal law, sexual harassment can take several forms in the workplace. The workplace sexual harassment definition might include inappropriate comments, demanding sexual favors in exchange for providing work benefits, displaying obscene photos, and other examples. Determining what is illegal harassment and what is acceptable can be difficult. By looking at how the courts and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission have reviewed sexual harassment claims, you can get a better idea of whether you have been the victim of illegal workplace harassment. The employment discrimination attorneys at Swartz Swidler can review what happened to you and offer an honest assessment of your potential claim.
Sexual harassment and the law
Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was a landmark federal law that prohibited many types of discrimination, including sex discrimination. Sexual harassment is considered to be a form of illegal sex discrimination under the law. This law covers all employers in the U.S. that have 15 or more employees. Under Title VII, anyone who is negatively affected by the harassing conduct can file a claim. According to the EEOC, the sexual harassment definition includes unwanted sexual advances, sexual physical or verbal conduct, or requests for sexual acts when these types of conduct implicitly or explicitly affect the worker’s employment, creates a hostile working environment, or interferes unreasonably with the worker’s ability to perform his or her job.
The following guidance from the EEOC further defines sexual harassment:
- Unwelcome and offensive conduct
- Victim of any gender or gender identity
- Harassers include supervisors, employers’ agents, non-employees, or co-workers
- Economic injury not required
Types of sexual harassment
Sexual harassment claims fall into two broad types, including quid pro quo sexual harassment and hostile work environment sexual harassment. In some cases, the lines between the two types may be blurred.
Quid pro quo sexual harassment occurs when a person in authority at a workplace asks for sexual favors or a sexual relationship in exchange for promotions or raises or for not being fired or punished. Hostile work environment sexual harassment happens when the victim is targeted by or witnesses displays of sexual pictures, offensive sexual jokes, threats, offensive touching, and other similar conduct. For hostile work environment sexual harassment to occur, the conduct must be pervasive enough to create an offensive or hostile work environment to the degree that it unreasonably interferes with the victim’s ability to perform his or her job.
How the sexual harassment definition is applied
While defining sexual harassment is fairly straightforward, applying the definition to a specific set of facts can be difficult. Some cases with similar facts are decided differently by the courts. This is especially true in cases involving hostile work environment claims because they are more difficult to prove than quid pro quo claims.
Employers might defend against claims of hostile work environment sexual harassment by arguing that they took steps to correct the behavior of the supervisors or managers involved. They might also defend against claims by arguing that the victims did not avail themselves of available internal reporting methods established by the companies to complain about sexual harassment. This makes it important for workers to review their company’s policies and follow the procedures outlined for filing sexual harassment complaints internally before filing claims with the EEOC.
How the courts review hostile work environment sexual harassment claims
When a hostile work environment sexual harassment claim is filed in court, the judge will look at the context in which the incidents occurred. For example, one case involving a claim of hostile work environment sexual harassment was filed by a writer for the television show “Friends.” The writer claimed that she was a victim of hostile work environment sexual harassment. However, the court found that the writers often engaged in sexual banter to brainstorm ideas, and the lawsuit was dismissed.
Courts consider several factors when they consider hostile work environment claims, including the following:
- How frequently the allegedly offensive behavior occurred
- The severity of the conduct
- The victim’s conduct
- The context in which the allegedly harassing behavior occurred
- The business’s size and nature
- Whether a reasonable person in the same situation would have thought the environment was hostile enough to prevent him or her from performing his or her job
If the victim participated in the joking or banter, it will be harder for him or her to prove that he or she was the victim of sexual harassment.
Myths about sexual harassment
There are several myths about sexual harassment. Some people think that women are the only victims of harassment. However, anyone can be the victim of sexual harassment no matter the gender or gender identity of the victim or the harasser. People also believe that same-gender harassment is not illegal sexual harassment. However, the U.S. Supreme Court has held that unlawful sexual harassment can happen between victims and harassers of the same genders or gender identities.
Another myth is that sexual harassment only happens in the workplace. However, people in positions of authority within school systems have been found to have engaged in illegal sexual harassment of students under Title IX of the Education Amendment of 1972. Finally, some people believe that only people in positions of authority or supervisors can be harassers. However, harassers can include coworkers, the agents of employers, clients, or customers. In these types of situations, the key factor will be whether the employer knew or should have reasonably known about the harassing conduct and failed to act.
Get help from the employment lawyers at Swartz Swidler
Sexual harassment is a pervasive problem in workplaces in New Jersey and Pennsylvania. When it occurs, it can traumatize the victims and disrupt their work environments. If you have been the victim of workplace sexual harassment, you need to act quickly. The employment lawyers at Swartz Swidler can review what happened and advise you about the appropriate steps to take. Request a free consultation today by filling out our contact form or calling us at 856.685.7420.