No one should have to experience sexual harassment at work, yet it’s a problem that continues in offices around the country. Employers and workers alike should understand how to recognize harassing behavior and what to do about it.
Recognizing Sexual Harassment
There are two kinds of workplace sexual harassment:
Quid pro quo harassment: This involves a “do this and receive that” scenario. For example, a boss who asks for sexual favors from an employee in exchange for a promotion has committed this type of harassment.
Hostile work environment: This is a repetitive behavior that can make someone feel intimidated or emotionally distressed at work. Work environments can become hostile under many circumstances, such as when there are inappropriate sexual jokes, sexual innuendo, touching, sexual comments, and many other offensive acts.
Male, female and transgender employees can be victims of sexual harassment, and anyone can be a harasser. Harassment is unlawful if it takes place at the office, at a company-sponsored event, or between co-workers even when they are away from work.
Additionally, if a customer, vendor or other non-employee harasses an employee, the business owner has an obligation to try to stop it.
Addressing and Preventing Sexual Harassment at Work
If you’re an employee, don’t hesitate to tell the offending person that their behavior is not welcome. If they don’t stop, you have the right to report the offending conduct without fear of retaliation.
If your employer threatens to fire or demote you for reporting it, or actually takes any adverse action against you, talk to an attorney right away. You can even talk to an attorney before you report the harassment if you prefer.
If you’re a manager, HR person or business owner and an employee comes to you to report sexual harassment, treat them with respect. Understand that it’s very difficult to come forward.
A large percentage of harassment is never reported because employees fear for themselves and their jobs. Let employees who report abuse know that you care and want to hear what happened, and explain what you will do to address the situation.
Here is a non-exhaustive list of things an employer should do to deal with sexual harassment and/or prevent it from occurring:
Create an anti-harassment policy and communicate it to all employees, not just once but many times.
Create a complaint procedure and encourage employees to use it.
Never take any action against an employee who reports that they were harassed.
Do whatever you can to stop the harassment right away.
Promptly investigate sexual harassment allegations.
Do not assume the reporter is being oversensitive, and don’t doubt the reporter based on their reputation; try to stay objective.
Document the investigation.
Document any disciplinary actions taken against the person who is accused of committing harassment.
Get Legal Advice About Workplace Sexual Harassment
Sexual harassment is a complex and sensitive topic that needs to be handled the right way. At my Minneapolis employment law firm, I help employees and companies navigate this challenging topic. If you need legal advice, please feel free to contact me to schedule a legal consultation or start a free case review.
Joshua Newville is a Minnesota employment lawyer, civil rights attorney, and mediator. Josh litigates and advises on such matters as wrongful termination, whistleblowers, discrimination, police misconduct, and more. He offers paid legal consultations and free online case reviews regarding employment law and civil rights.