While the workplace is not always someplace we want to be, it does not have to be a threatening or intimidating place to spend our days, either. Harassment, however, can turn a workplace into a living nightmare for the person or people group that are the target of the harassing behavior. One particularly-insidious form of harassment that has received increased attention in recent years is sexual harassment. Even those who have attended seminars and workshops on sexual harassment find it difficult sometimes to determine whether a particular comment or action qualifies as harassment, and few know what they ought to do once they believe they have been sexually harassed.
What Exactly is Sexual Harassment?
Sexual harassment is a form of sex discrimination and is prohibited by both federal and state law. Although it is difficult to give a blanket, one-size-fits-all definition that encompasses the many forms that sexual harassment may take, it is generally understood to include:
Making unwanted sexual advances toward another employee or coworker;
Making crude jokes about a coworker’s sex or members of the coworker’s sex;
Offering promotions, benefits, and/or other “perks” to a coworker or employee in return for sexual favors from that coworker or employee;
Threatening to fire or demote a coworker or employee that does not perform or agree to perform sexual favors;
and unwanted touching of a sexual nature (rubbing one’s shoulders, patting a co-worker on the rear, etc.).
Employers are also prohibited from retaliating against employees who report sexual harassment or who assert their legal rights under federal and state law when they have been harassed. Retaliation can include termination, demotions, or additional harassment or discrimination at work.
Sexual harassment is prohibited in the workplace even if the “victim” of harassment is not the direct target of the harassment. For example, suppose a group of male coworkers are gathered in the breakroom and one member of the group makes a loud, obnoxious joke to his male coworkers about women in general. Just as the joke is being told (and unbeknownst to the group) a female coworker walks by the breakroom and hears the joke. If the female coworker is offended and/or made to feel uncomfortable by the comment, the joke can be considered a form of sexual harassment.
What Should I Do if I Feel I Was Sexually Harassed?
You should not keep quiet or “just take” sexual harassment as an unavoidable part of your job. Employers have an obligation to provide a workplace that is free from sex discrimination and sexual harassment. Even if the employer itself is not instigating or encouraging the sexual harassment, the employer may have a legal obligation to take measure to halt the harassing behavior.
- Try and talk with the perpetrator of the sexual harassment first, if you feel comfortable doing so. Explain the behavior that you found harassing and ask that it stop. Document the details of this conversation for future reference, if necessary.
- If the harassing behavior does not stop, or if you feel too threatened or intimidated to confront the perpetrator, speak with your supervisor or the other person’s supervisor about the behavior. If a supervisor is the perpetrator, continue up the company ladder until you reach someone you feel comfortable speaking with about the problem.
- If you do not receive any reprieve from speaking with the perpetrator or his or her supervisor, or if you do not wish to speak with a member of your employer’s staff, you can speak with the Arizona Attorney General’s Office and/or the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and file a complaint. Note that there are specific time limits for filing a complaint with these agencies (for example, the Arizona Attorney General’s Office requires that you file a complaint with their office within 180 days of the date the harassment occurred)
For more information contact an experienced sexual harassment lawyer at Nathan M. Smith & Associates, PLLC.