Defining Sexual Harassment

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Defining Sexual Harassment_a gavel on a wooden brown desktop

What is sexual harassment?  It’s a question that seems to have an elusive answer.  In reality, it’s not that the answer is elusive as it is complex.

Sexual Harassment:  The Lack of a Common Definition

Despite the efforts of both international and national legal authorities, there is no single definition of what constitutes sexual harassment.  International law defines it broadly as a form of violence against women and discriminatory treatment, while U.S. laws tend to focus on illegal conduct.

There is general consensus about what constitutes prohibited conduct.  For an action to be considered sexual harassment it must meet these criteria:

1.  [the action] is related to sex or sexual conduct;
2.  [the conduct] is unwelcome, not returned, not mutual
3.  [the conduct] affects the terms or conditions of employment, in some cases including the work environment itself.

Sexual Harassment in the United States

The United States was one of the first countries to define sexual harassment as a prohibited form of sex discrimination.  According to the American Association of University Women:

Sexual harassment is a form of sex discrimination that violates Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Very generally, sexual harassment describes unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, or other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature. Title VII is a federal law that prohibits discrimination in employment on the basis of sex, race, color, national origin, and religion, and it applies to employers with 15 or more employees, including federal, state, and local governments. Even with Title VII’s protections, many people across the country still face sexual harassment in their workplaces.

The U.S. government body that enforces the Civil Rights Act mentioned above is the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).  The following is from the EEOC’s website.

Sexual Harassment

It is unlawful to harass a person (an applicant or employee) because of that person’s sex. Harassment can include “sexual harassment” or unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical harassment of a sexual nature.

Harassment does not have to be of a sexual nature, however, and can include offensive remarks about a person’s sex. For example, it is illegal to harass a woman by making offensive comments about women in general.

Both victim and the harasser can be either a woman or a man, and the victim and harasser can be the same sex.

Although the law doesn’t prohibit simple teasing, offhand comments, or isolated incidents that are not very serious, harassment is illegal when it is so frequent or severe that it creates a hostile or offensive work environment or when it results in an adverse employment decision (such as the victim being fired or demoted).

The harasser can be the victim's supervisor, a supervisor in another area, a co-worker, or someone who is not an employee of the employer, such as a client or customer.

The EEOC goes a step further to outline different type of sexual harassment.

Types of Sexual Harassment

Term Definition
Quid Pro Quo Sexual harassment that occurs when a supervisor or one in an authority position requests sex, or a sexual relationship, in exchange for not firing or otherwise punishing the employee, or in exchange for favors, such as promotions or raises.
Hostile Work Environment

Sexual harassment that occurs through the presence of demeaning or sexual photographs, jokes or threats. The inappropriate behavior or conduct must be so pervasive as to, as the name implies, create an intimidating and offensive work environment.

Sexual Harassment Myths

Adding to the complexity of defining sexual harassment are the myths that surround the subject. 

Myth True or False
Only women can be harassed. False.  A man can be harassed by a woman or another man.  Courts have previously ruled on this issue.
A woman can’t harass another woman and a man can’t harass another man. False.  The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled sexual harassment can occur between people of the same sex.
Sexual harassment can only occur in the workplace. False.  Under rulings from the U.S. Supreme Court, sexual harassment of students can occur in school systems by individuals in positions of authority.
Only supervisors or those in authority positions can be a harasser.

False.  The alleged harasser can be a co-worker or a third party such as a company client. 

Want to know more?

As it was stated before and as it has been evidenced, sexual harassment is very complex.  That’s just the beginning.  Addressing related policies, complaints and treating HR as a safe place are all parts of this very difficult topic.  The HR Exchange Network has provided a guide with more information.  To download it, click here.