Legal Definition of Sexual Harassment

This is actually a very good question. It is likely true that the definition depends on the workplace in which you work, and the policies and procedures that are in place, not to mention the general culture of the workplace.

We can admit that standards for “sexual harassment” can vary, from simply having physical contact, to those that have verbal sexual comments added to the definition.

The least common denominator for sexual harassment is about the work environment that comments or physical actions create. And these actions or words apply only to the workplace, at least in terms of the federal government guidelines.

From a legal perspective, sexual harassment is defined as any verbal or physical activity of a sexual nature that leads to a hostile work environment. It applies to either men or women received unwanting comments or physical contact and in situations where a worker’s employment status may be impacted by accepting or rejecting such actions or comments.

Such actions can be deemed a violation of the Civil Rights Act, Title VII, which addresses sexual discrimination, as such comments or actions are considered discriminatory based on gender or sexual orientation. Courts have determined that there are two types of actionable sexual harassment.

One is called “quid pro quo” sexual harassment, which is usually a person in an authority position requesting sexual favors or a relationship in exchange for either a promotion or bonus or to stay employed. The other type is called “hostile work environment” sexual harassment, which involves photography, comments or threats. Random and occasional such comments are one thing, but the hostile work environment can come about if the comments or threats happen so often or come from supervisors and managers that they affect worker’s ability to do their job or create feelings of intimidation.

In the second type of sexual harassment can not only involve legal action against the individual who conducts the harassment, but employers can also be potentially liable if two conditions are met:

  • If the employer had reason to be aware of the hostile environment, and
  • The employer did not take reasonable efforts to fix the problem.

And how would an employer be expected to know about the hostile environment? Legally, an employer can be found to have had knowledge if the employer had a complaint filed about the activity, management did not take action in developing an anti-harassment policy, and/or the activity is common knowledge among workers and occurs in the open on the work site.

Sexual harassment is handled differently by each state; some states have requirements for companies to have sexual harassment policies in place, while other states do not have such laws but may allow an employee to sue an employer based on privacy violations. It is a good idea to know your state’s laws and regulations involving sexual harassment and look for a policy for sexual harassment with your employer to understand compliance with federal rules and definitions.

There is no place for sexual harassment in the workplace, and it is up to all of us to be proactive and calling it out and getting sound legal advice to ensure that sexual harassment is expunged from the workplace.