Sexual harassment in the workplace is a serious problem, and although employees know that it exists, many are unsure of what to do if they become a victim. According to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, sexual harassment is defined as "unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature 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." Title VII of the Civil Rights Act is the main federal law that prohibits sexual harassment. In addition, each state has its own anti-sexual harassment law.
Employment lawyer Greg Noble explains, "Sexual harassment really goes beyond just your boss being mean to you. It has to involve some sort of sexual conduct." This can take the form of a work environment that becomes hostile because of inappropriate sexual comments, insults, or touching. A hostile work environment may also be created through sexual photographs, demeaning jokes, or threats with a sexual undertone.
A second type of sexual harassment is known as quid pro quo. According to employment lawyer Greg Noble, this occurs when "your boss is conditioning a benefit of employment on something sexual, such as a date, sex, or anything like that." Quid pro quo sexual harassment can also occur when someone in a position of authority requests a sexual favor in exchange for not firing or otherwise punishing the employee, or in exchange for a favor such as a raise or promotion.
It is important to be aware that if you are the victim of any type of workplace harassment, you cannot simply quit your job. New Jersey employment attorney Kevin Costello explains, "Unfortunately, it's not so easy to just quit. In order for us to carry remedies for you into court and say that you were forced to resign because of the harassment, it has to be pretty bad. The standard is called 'conduct which is so extreme and outrageous that no reasonable person could be expected to continue to endure it'...If the harassment is that bad, you do have a right to leave [and] you do have a right to capture lost wages and other lost benefits." Exactly what kind of behavior qualifies as "extreme and outrageous conduct" varies from case to case, judge to judge, and court to court.
Although you cannot quit your job unless the sexual harassment is severe, your employer is obligated to address the issue of harassment and take action to resolve the problem. "It is important that people understand that employers have an obligation under the law not just to prevent unlawful sexual harassment, but when there's a legitimate complaint about it, to investigate it fully and to take corrective action. If the employers don't do that, they're subject to all kinds of penalties," explains employment attorney Steve Cahn.
Educating yourself on both federal sexual harassment laws and your state's law is an essential step in protecting yourself from becoming a victim of sexual harassment. When you know your rights, you will know when they are being violated and you will be empowered to defend yourself. If you are sexually harassed at work, it is advisable to inform the harasser directly that the conduct is unwelcome and must stop. In addition, you should use any employer complaint mechanism or grievance system available. Finally, it is advisable to speak to an employment lawyer about the situation as soon as possible in order to ensure that your rights are protected and the proper legal procedure for dealing with the harassment is followed.
Liz Ryan is a Writing and Content Specialist for Lawyer Central. Visit Lawyer Central's Employee Issue Resources for legal information about employment law and to find an experienced employment lawyer. Discuss workplace rights and related issues on the free Law Forum.
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