What Behaviors Are Considered Sexual Harassment at Work?
Defining Sexual Harassment at Work
Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits employment discrimination based on “race, color, religion, sex, and national origin.” Title VII has been interpreted by the Supreme Court to include sexual harassment at work as a form of sex discrimination. This law applies to private employers with 15 or more employees. Sexual harassment at work is not only unacceptable, abusive, and insensitive—it’s against the law.
Some people don’t realize that behaviors such as telling inappropriate jokes, showing obvious favoritism, and denying promotions for any reasons related to sex or gender are signs of workplace discrimination. There are laws designed to protect those who experience unfair treatment at work simply because of the way another person views and treats them. If you believe that you may be the victim of sexual harassment in the workplace, it’s important to report the incident or incidents. In this way, light can be shown on a very serious problem in our nation.
Defining what is harassment and what it is not can sometimes be a slippery slope, especially when there are conflicting stories about the events that took place. The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) states that sexual harassment can include unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, verbal or physical harassment of a sexual nature, or offensive remarks about a person’s sex. For example, making insulting generalizations about women to a female employee is considered an example of sexual harassment.
There are two broad categories of sexual harassment that are illegal under Title VII: quid pro quo harassment and hostile work environment. To better understand what each of these two types of sexual harassment actually looks like in the workplace, let’s examine them in turn.
Quid Pro Quo Harassment
This type of sexual harassment is when tangible job activity is exchanged for something of a sexual nature. A supervisor or employer may propose a quid pro quo arrangement to an employee, who in turn may fear for their job if they don’t accept. This kind of sexual harassment is most commonly seen when:
Someone is promised a promotion in exchange for a date or sexual favor
Someone is fired or demoted because they refuse to grant sexual favors or give in to sexual advances
Hostile Work Environment
As straightforward as the name implies, hostile work environment harassment creates an abusive atmosphere that negatively affects a person’s ability to perform work duties. Unfortunately, what constitutes this kind of sexual harassment is often more up for debate than one might imagine. The less-blatant examples of harassment are the ones that are usually most difficult to qualify, quantify, and prove. While physical harassment may be easier to recognize, less obvious harassment can hide under the guise of verbal, unspoken, or online behaviors.
Verbal sexual harassment is one of the most prevalent types of workplace harassment. It can take the form of:
Unwanted comments about a person’s appearance
Harassing someone for dates or sexual favors
Jokes, stories, and conversations of a sexual nature
Questions about someone’s sex life or sexual preferences
Insulting, gender-based, or sexual nicknames
Making offensive comments about a person’s sexuality or gender
Spreading rumors about a person’s private life
Discussing the attractiveness of employees at work
Criticizing someone for not living up to gender stereotypes
Unspoken, non-verbal, or visual sexual harassment occurs when a person clearly communicates unwelcomed messages of a sexual intent to another individual or group. This can include:
Staring and ogling
Taking someone’s photograph without consent
Displaying or showing sexually-explicit pictures or videos at work
Leaving unwanted gifts with a romantic or sexual purpose
Leaving notes, letters, or messages publicly or privately
Gestures, winking, blowing kisses, and other suggestive actions
Exposing genitals to another person
Exhibiting another person’s private pictures without consent
Online harassment is just as real as physical or verbal harassment, and may happen much more prevalently. Some examples might be:
Emails or messages of a sexual nature
Unwanted advances made online, over the phone, or in text
Sending inappropriate pictures or videos to someone
Posting online about sexual activities
Posting another person’s private information or images without consent
Sending pornographic material
Physical sexual harassment is the most aggressive and conspicuous form. These behaviors can be the most dangerous, but they are sometimes disguised by offenders as being of a light, innocent, or joking nature. Physical sexual harassment may involve:
Unwanted contact (massaging, touching repeatedly, hugging, pinching, or caressing)
Any inappropriate touching of body parts
Regularly standing too closely or cornering someone
Whispering in someone’s ear
Following or blocking someone from movement
Deliberately brushing against someone
Touching someone else’s clothes or objects without consent
Who Are the Victims and Offenders?
Contrary to popular belief, sexual harassment does not always come from a supervisor or peer at work. The EEOC states that a harasser can be a direct supervisor, a supervisor of another department, a colleague, or even someone who does not work for the company—like a client, customer, business partner, or vendor. Your employer has a duty to protect you against sexual harassment, even when the perpetrator is not employed by your employer.
There is no “typical” person who can or cannot be a victim of sexual harassment at work. There are no age, gender, job title, or other factors that make an individual immune to sexual harassment. A victim may be of any gender identification and sexuality, of any age, and of any background. Likewise, an offender may perpetrate harassment against someone of their own or another gender. It’s important to believe the stories of victims and not make assumptions about what a “typical” case of harassment should look like.
One further point to consider is that a direct recipient of harassing behaviors is not the only victim of sexual harassment. If a person’s actions toward another person create a hostile work environment, there are likely to be many individuals affected.
Compensation for Victims
Victims of workplace sexual harassment may be entitled to recover damages. In legal terminology, “damages” refers to the sum of money awarded to compensate a loss. In sexual harassment cases, many of the losses incurred by the victim are related to salary or wages lost because of unlawful dismissal or discrimination. Sexual harassment law works to address the highly unfair situations in which a person is victimized at work, and through no fault of their own is denied the financial means to support themselves and their family.
But lost wages is not the only form of loss a sexual harassment victim suffers. Compensation that may be awarded in sexual harassment cases includes:
Back pay damages (wages, salary, bonuses, commissions, and/or benefits lost)
Front pay damages (compensation for current to future losses due to unlawful dismissal)
Compensation for emotional distress and anguish
Treble damages (triple the amount of compensatory damages awarded) under the Minnesota Human Rights Act
Punitive damages (damages intended to punish the defendant’s behavior) under Title VII
Attorney fees and litigation costs
Your lawyer will work closely with you to make sure that you are appropriately compensated. Losing a job due to sexual harassment has a substantial and far-reaching impact on a person’s financial, emotional, and sometimes even physical well-being.
Taking Action Creates Change
The most recent U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission reports show that more than 6,500 claims were filed with the EEOC in 2020. But it’s estimated that this number is immeasurably lower than the instances of harassment that actually take place in workplaces across the country each year. While the problem is still immense, we have seen positive changes in recent years. In general, more people are willing to come forward and report harassment than in years past. And there has been an increased general awareness of the magnitude of the problem. This is largely contributable to public legal cases that expose the pervasiveness of this critical issue.
But as knowledge of the problem grows, there are perpetrators who only become more underhanded in their actions. A regretfully high number of victims are led to question whether what they suffered is even considered sexual harassment at all. We truly listen to our clients’ stories. We are all too aware of what a sinister problem sexual harassment in the workplace really is.
We have helped fight and win cases for many clients who have been the victim of gender discrimination. We have been proud to stand up against discriminatory actions toward transgender people and employer requirements that discriminate against women. As attorneys, it our job to give our best to help every individual client win their case—and through each single instance of justice achieved, we can see positive steps forward in a field we care deeply about. Reach out to discuss your case.
Joshua Newville is an attorney and mediator based in Minnesota. He litigates employment and civil rights cases, serves as a mediator for civil disputes, and provides employment law advice.