What is Sexual Harassment and Why Should I Report It?

Introduction

No employee should have to endure sexual harassment in the workplace. Yet some employees do silently endure sexual harassment for one reason or another. Perhaps the employee fears losing his or her job or having his or her professional development stunted if he or she does not go along with the harassing behavior. Perhaps the employee feels helpless because the perpetrator is well-regarded and the employee feels no one would believe him or her. Still other employees may simply not know what to do in the event they are experiencing sexual harassment in the workplace. Whatever the underlying reason, however, failing to report sexual harassment when it occurs can negatively impact your ability to recover damages and compensation to which you might otherwise be entitled. But do know what is sexual harassment before reporting.

What is Sexual Harassment?

what is sexual harassment?

Sexual harassment can be difficult to define, but is generally considered to be unwelcome remarks, actions, comments, and/or jokes of a sexual nature. In addition, sexual harassment can include promises made by one person to another to provide “perks” or benefits in return for sexual favors. Although a stereotype might exist in the minds of some that only males can be the perpetrators of sexual harassment and the only victims can be females, in reality, any person can be a perpetrator of sexual harassment and any person can be a victim – regardless of gender. Some common examples of sexual harassment include:

  • Requesting or demanding sexual favors in return for any employment-related benefit, such as a promotion, pay raise, more-favorable scheduling, and/or additional time off, for example;
  • Threatening retaliation, demotion, or job loss if sexual favors are not performed;
  • Crude or demeaning jokes about one gender or the other, regardless of who says the joke;
  • Disparaging comments about your gender or the gender of another worker.

 

If you are of average sensibilities and are offended by a sexually-themed comment, joke, or proposition, chances are that it falls under the umbrella of sexual harassment. You do not need to be part of the discussion to be the victim of sexual harassment. For example, overhearing a group of colleagues making jokes about a person’s gender may be sexual harassment, especially if a person of ordinary sensibilities would find the joke offensive.

Why You Must Report Sexual Harassment Promptly

Thanks to a pair of U.S. Supreme Court decisions from 1998 (Faragher v. City of Boca Raton and Burlington Industries, Inc. v. Ellerth), employers who are accused of allowing sexual harassment to take place in the workplace have a defense where (i) the employer took reasonable, prompt, and appropriate steps to correct any sexual harassment in the workplace; and (ii) the employee unreasonably failed to take advantage of preventative or remedial measures offered by the employer. The operative word is “unreasonable” – most every court that has examined this Faragher-Ellerth defense has found that employees who do not report sexual harassment claims to the appropriate supervisor act unreasonably.

How to Report a Sexual Harassment Claim

If you believe you are the victim of sexual harassment, report this to your company’s human resources department or the person designated to handle these claims. If you do not know who that person is, report the sexual harassment to your supervisor (or his or her supervisor, if your supervisor is the one engaging in harassing behavior). Make your report in writing – even sending an e-mail to the appropriate supervisor is preferable to simply telling the person verbally (this makes it more difficult for the employer to say that you never reported or complained of sexual harassment). By doing this, if your employer does not take appropriate measures to correct the sexual harassment you will be in a much better position to assert your rights through a discrimination claim and/or lawsuit.