What Is Sexual Harassment in the Workplace?
Sexual harassment is a type of sex-based discrimination that breaches Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. This illegal practice may come in the form of unwanted sexual advances and other physical or verbal behaviors of a sexual nature that negatively impact the victim's employment or job performance or cause a hostile work environment.
According to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission's guidelines, there are two categories of sexual harassment: "quid pro quo" and "hostile environment."
What is quid pro quo?
Quid pro quo — which means "this for that" — occurs when there's an expressed or implied demand for sexual favors in exchange for some type of employment benefit. This kind of sexual harassment is typically done by someone in a position of power, such as a supervisor, and is inflicted upon someone in a lesser position, such as a subordinate.
For example, a supervisor may offer or hint at the following benefits in exchange for sex:
- Pay increase.
- A more extravagant office.
- Travel opportunities.
- More-desirable work shifts.
The supervisor may subject the victim to the following consequences for refusing his or her demands:
- Less-appealing work.
- Undesirable work shifts.
With quid pro quo, the perpetrator makes employment decisions relating to the victim based on the victim's willingness to submit.
What is a hostile environment?
This type of sexual harassment materializes when the behavior or speech is so severe and widespread that it causes a demeaning, humiliating or intimidating work environment that adversely affects the victim's job performance.
Whereas quid pro quo is usually perpetrated by someone in a position of power, a hostile environment can be created by anyone in the workplace — including a manager, supervisor, co-worker, subordinate, vendor, contractor or customer.
A hostile environment isn't always easy to spot because it requires a pattern of harassment. However, according to the Department of Labor, "the most effective way to limit harassing conduct is to treat it as misconduct, even if it does not rise to the level of harassment actionable under the law." In other words, a single instance of sexual offense is inappropriate, even if it's not considered illegal.
The following are some behaviors that might constitute a hostile environment:
- Repeatedly making sexual jokes.
- Displaying images, cartoons, pictures or objects of a sexual nature.
- Insulting someone by using derogatory sexual terms.
- Sexual comments or innuendos.
- Inappropriate behavior — such as touching or groping — that is unwelcomed.
- Lewd gestures.
- Attempted or completed sexual assault.
Neither quid pro quo or hostile environment is gender-specific. Both the perpetrator and the victim can be either a man or a woman. They can also be of the same sex.
Keep in mind that there are many gray areas surrounding sexual harassment. The list above is just a summary, and a variety of regulations and court cases come into play when there are harassment charges. Be sure to obtain legal counsel prior to implementing prevention strategies and other policies and procedures.