Sexual harassment in the workplace is an epidemic. Polls have found that more than half of women in the United States have experienced sexual harassment in the workplace. Seventy percent of Americans say there is a problem.
Decades of polls reveal that the problem is not new nor has it gotten any better. But that doesn’t mean victims of sexual harassment have to suffer in silence.
Sexual harassment is against the law, and countless people have brought cases against harassers for discrimination. Not only does it provide compensation for victims harassed by others at work but it helps discourage others from harassing coworkers.
Sexual harassment is a form of sex discrimination that violates the Civil Rights Act, according to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). It is defined by the EEOC as any unwanted sexual advances, demands for sexual favors, and other encounters of sexual nature that affect an individual’s employment, work performance, or work environment.
The victim of sexual harassment does not have to be a man or a woman and does not have to come from a person of the opposite sex. A harasser can be anyone at work, including a supervisor, coworker, or nonemployee. Economic injury is not a requirement for sexual harassment. A victim of sexual harassment does not have to be the person harassed but only affected by the conduct.
For conduct to be considered sexual harassment, it must be unwelcome and offensive.
The exact numbers around sexual harassment are unknown. Not only do people fail to report sexual harassment over fear of retaliation but there is often shame and embarrassment placed on those who do.
Still, polls and study reveal an alarming number of victims of sexual harassment.
In a comprehensive study released by the EEOC in 2016, anywhere between 25% to 85% of women say they have experienced sexual harassment in the workplace. This means that at least one in four women have been sexually harassed at work.
Although sexual harassment studies focus primarily on women, some have also asked men if they experienced sexual harassment. Studies in 1981, 1988, and 1994 found that between 14% and 19% of men who responded experienced unwanted sexual attention or coercion.
One of the most alarming revelations from the EEOC study was that roughly 75% of employees who spoke up about sexual harassment in the workplace faced some form of retaliation. This is why it’s not surprising anywhere between 87% and 94% of victims do not file a formal complaint.
The EEOC Guidelines give two types of sexual harassments in the workplace: quid pro quo and hostile environment.
An example of quid pro quo sexual harassment would be a manager saying directly or implying that a person would receive a promotion in exchange for sex. An authority figure may also threaten a person’s job if they do not give that authority figure sexual favors.
Quid pro quo harassment typically only involves those in a position of power while hostile environments can be created by coworkers and nonemployees.
Examples include sending lewd images to a coworker’s email, repeatedly telling sexually explicit jokes or anecdotes, inappropriate touching, or derogatory remarks made about someone’s sex.
Although quid pro quo and hostile environment are considered two categories, they are not mutually exclusive. The line between the two forms of harassment are not always clear, and they often occur together.
Whether an employer is legally responsible for sexual harassment depends on the type of harassment and who committed it.
An employer can be liable if harassment is committed by a superior like a supervisor and there is a tangible action against an employee. This includes demotion, termination, or a change in job responsibilities.
An employer can also be held liable in a hostile work environment. However, an employer may argue it exercised reasonable care to prevent or correct the harassment but the harasser did not react to the company’s intervention.
Countless sexual harassment cases have been tried in court over the years. Here are a few of the most high-profile cases.
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