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Sex Harassment in the Workplace

Sex harassment is a debilitating and humiliating experience for those who suffer through it. Unfortunately, there has been a dramatic growth in the number of sex harassment complaints filed in recent years, and there is no reason to believe that this trend will slow. No one expects to be sexually harassed at work. However, in the employment arena, preparation is the key to avoiding difficult situations before they arise. Knowing how to handle sex harassment can be the difference between a healthy work environment and one that is intolerable.

Sex harassment is defined as unwelcome sexual conduct that is a term or condition of employment. Generally, there are two kinds of sexual harassment. The first type of sex harassment is “Quid Pro Quo” harassment. Quid Pro Quo is a Latin phrase that is used to mean “something for something.” Quid Pro Quo harassment occurs when an employment decision is made because a person refuses to accept unwelcome sexual conduct. For example, if a supervisor terminates an employee for refusing a sexual advance that would be “quid pro quo” harassment. That type of behavior is clearly inappropriate and illegal. If you are subjected to that type of harassment, you should complain immediately to a supervisor or your company’s Human Resources department.

The second type of sex harassment is “hostile environment” harassment. Hostile environment harassment is unwelcome sexual conduct that unreasonably interferes with job performance or creates an intimidating, hostile or offensive working environment. The unwelcome sexual conduct must be hostile or abusive to a reasonable person. Therefore, sexual flirtation or innuendo that is merely annoying will probably not establish a hostile environment. Several factors are considered in determining whether an employee worked in a hostile environment. They include: (1) whether the conduct was verbal, physical or both; (2) how frequently the conduct was repeated; (3) whether the conduct was hostile or patently offensive; (4) whether the harasser was a co-worker or supervisor; (5) whether others participated in the harassing behavior; and (6) whether the harassment is directed at more than one individual.

If you encounter sex harassment, you should complain immediately to a supervisor or the Human Resources department. You should put your complaint in writing and keep a record of all communications with your employer about your complaint. You may also wish to consult an attorney at this early stage to ensure that the process goes smoothly. Your right to be free from discrimination in employment is protected by Federal, State and local laws. The procedures for filing sex harassment complaints are time-sensitive and can be complicated. It is best to get a handle on these procedures before a discriminatory workplace becomes intolerable. Many people wait until the situation is out-of-hand and miss the opportunity to address the problem because the time to file a complaint has passed.

In addition to your legal right to a discrimination-free work environment, your employer may have policies and procedures that govern how it handles harassment complaints. Often, these procedures are found in an employee handbook. In some cases, promises made in the employee handbook can be contractually binding. It is important to be familiar with your employer’s policies because you never know when you will find yourself in a situation where your knowledge of your employment rights can mean the difference between a difficult situation and one that is easily handled.