Legal Definitions of Sexual Harassment
Sexual harassment is a legal term, created for the purpose of ending harassment and discrimination against women in the workplace. The term is constantly being redefined and extended in legislation and court decisions. However, not all sexual behavior in the workplace is harassment, and the laws against sexual harassment do not extend to situations outside the workplace or school.
The basic definition of sexual harassment comes from the United Stated Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC):
Unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature constitutes sexual harassment when submission to or rejection of this conduct explicitly or implicitly affects an individual's employment, unreasonably interferes with an individual's work performance or creates an intimidating, hostile or offensive work environment.
This definition has been further elaborated:
Sexual harassment can occur in a variety of circumstances, including but not limited to the following:
- The victim as well as the harasser may be a woman or a man. The victim does not have to be of the opposite sex.
- The harasser can be the victim's supervisor, an agent of the employer, a supervisor in another area, a co-worker, or a non-employee.
- The victim does not have to be the person harassed but could be anyone affected by the offensive conduct.
- Unlawful sexual harassment may occur without economic injury to or discharge of the victim.
- The harasser's conduct must be unwelcome.
Most states also have laws against sexual harassment that may differ slightly from the federal definition. You can check whether your state has such laws here
There are two legally recognized types of sexual harassment:
Quid pro quo sexual harassment
- quid pro quo sexual harassment
- hostile environment sexual harassment
occurs when an individual's submission to or rejection of sexual advances or conduct of a sexual nature is used as the basis for employment decisions affecting the individual or the individual's submission to such conduct is made a term or condition of employment.
Hostile environment sexual harassment
- It is sufficient to show a threat of economic loss to prove quid pro quo sexual harassment.
- A single sexual advance may constitute harassment if it is linked to the granting or denial of employment benefits.
- Courts have held employers strictly liable for quid pro quo sexual harassment initiated by supervisory employees.
- A subordinate who submits and then changes her or his mind and refuses can still bring quid pro quo sexual harassment charges.
occurs when unwelcome sexual conduct unreasonably interferes with an individual's job performance or creates a hostile, intimidating or offensive work environment even though the harassment may not result in tangible or economic job consequences, that is, the person may not lose pay or a promotion.
There are two conditions that determine liability for employers in cases of hostile environment sexual harassment:
- The employer knew or should have known about the harassment, and
- The employer failed to take appropriate corrective action.
An employer can be held liable for the creation of a hostile environment by a supervisor, by non-supervisory personnel, or by the acts of the employer's customers or independent contractors if the employer has knowledge of such harassment and fails to correct it.
An employer may be expected to know about the hostile environment
- if there was a complaint to management
- if management failed to establish a policy against sexual harassment
- if the harassment is openly practiced or well-known among employees.