Sexual harassment in the work place is one of the most troubling matters for an employer. If it is left unattended, claims of sexual harassment could place the business at serious risk for costly financial damages and ruined reputations. Employer must open their eyes to the possibility that sexual harassment could happen in their work place and must take all possible steps to prevent its occurrence. In legal terms, sexual harassment is any unwelcome sexual advance or conduct on the job that creates an intimidating, hostile or offensive working environment. Sexual harassment is any offensive conduct related to an employee?s gender that a reasonable woman or man should not have to endure.
Sexual harassment covers a wide range of conduct that is all illegal. An employee who has been led to believe she must sleep with her boss to keep her job has been sexually harassed, as has one whose co-workers regularly tells offensive, sex-related jokes and plaster their walls with pictures of nude women. An employee who is pinched or fondled against his or her will by a co-worker has been sexually harassed, as has one whose colleagues smirk at her, block her path or act like they?re going to grab her. An employee who is constantly belittled and referred to by sexist or demeaning names has been sexually harassed, as has on who is subjected to repeated rude or pornographic remarks. Sexual harassment occurs when a supervisor acts as if the women working under him owe him sexual favors, and it also occurs when a co-worker attacks or intimidates a woman because he doesn?t think she should be doing what he considers man?s work. It occasionally drives from an excess of sexual desire by the harasser, but most often it is motivated by fear, power or hate. Most cases of sexual harassment are never reported, because the harassed women are too degraded, too uncertain of their rights or too fearful of retaliation to do anything about it. Thousands of harassment claims have been filed through government agencies and company complaint procedures.
There are many misconceptions about sexual harassment that many men fear. Sexual harassment laws have prevented men from complimenting a woman or asking her out for a date, which is acceptable. Nothing in the law prevents dating, as long as it is done in a reasonable manner that respects a co-worker?s dignity and wishes. Office romances are not unlawful, as long as both employees welcome the relationship. Another misconception is that anything can happen in the workplace as long as there is no physical contact with another employee. Sexual harassment can result from any verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature. Many types of sexual harassment involve no touching, but they are offensive or intimidating to the employee.
Sexual harassment results from a misuse of power and it?s not always from sexual attraction. Numerous cases of sexual harassment involves anger and abuse of power. Many men express their resentment and try to claim control when they view women as their competitor. If sex discrimination forces women into lower-paying jobs, sexual harassment helps keep them there. This may not be the intention of the harasser in every issue but it is often the effect. Male workers who harass a women on the job are doing more than annoying her, they are reminding her of her vulnerability, creating tensions that make her job more difficult and making her hesitant to seek higher paying jobs where she may see the tension as even greater. There is no typical harassed woman. Women of all ages, backgrounds, races and experience are harassed on the job.
The consequences to the individual employee can be many and serious. In some situations, a harassed woman risks losing her job or the chance for a promotion if she refuses to give in to the sexual demands of someone in authority. In other situations, the unwelcome sexual conduct of co-workers makes the working conditions hostile and unpleasant by putting indirect pressure on her to leave the job. Sometimes the employee is so traumatized by the harassment that she suffers serious emotional and physical consequences.
Prior to the 1980?s there were no federal or state laws prohibiting sexual harassment on the job. Sexual discrimination in employment became illegal in the United States when the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was adopted. That Act established the Equal Employment Opportunities Commission (EEOC), which later issued important regulations and guidelines on sexual harassment. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits discrimination in employment based on race, color, religion or national origin. Discrimination on the basis of sex was not included. It was attached to the bill at the last moment by southerners who introduced an amendment prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sex.
After convincing the EEOC to begin enforcing the law against sex discrimination, women faced the problem of stopping sexual harassment in the workplace. The term ?sexual harassment? wasn?t mentioned anywhere in the Civil Rights Act and many women argued that sexual harassment was a form of sex discrimination. They felt that laws prohibiting discrimination should outlaw harassment as well. Most courts considering the issue early on refused to pin down whether the Civil Rights Act prohibited sexual harassment. They characterized harassment cases as some sort of personal dispute between the woman employee and her harasser that was not covered by the law. Women?s groups kept pressing the issue urging the EEOC to rule that sexual harassment is a form of sex discrimination and that harassment makes it impossible for women to work in certain types of situations. Finally in 1980, the EEOC issued regulations defining sexual harassment and stating that it was a form of sex discrimination prohibited by the Civil Rights Act. It wasn?t until 1986 that the U.S. Supreme Court acknowledged that movement saying that sexual harassment on the job was a form of sex discrimination, which is illegal.
Legal definitions of sexual harassment vary from state to state, but almost every state extends the minimum protection found in the regulations of the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunities Commission. EEOC standards are the most significant nationwide in defining the parameters of sexual harassment. The EEOC definition of sexual harassment is found in 29 Code of Federal Regulations (CFR) 1604.11 (a):
Harassment on the basis of sex is a violation of the law. Unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature constitute sexual harassment when: 1. Submission to such conduct is made either explicitly or implicitly a term or condition of an individual?s employment
2. Submission to or refection of such conduct by an individual is used as the basis for employment decisions affecting such individual, or
3. Such conduct has the purpose or effect of unreasonably interfering with an individual?s work performance or creating an intimidating, hostile or offensive working environment.
The EEOC regulations also make clear that most sexual harassment cases can only be resolved by looking at all the facts in context (29 CFR 1604.11 (b)):
In determining whether alleged conduct constitutes sexual harassment, the EEOC will look at the record as a whole and at the totality of the circumstances, such as the nature of the sexual advances and the context in which the alleged incidents occurred.
In 1988, the EEOC amended its guidelines to extend legal responsibility for the behavior of nonemployees (29 CFR 1604.11 (e):
An employer may also be responsible for the acts of nonemployees, with respect to sexual harassment of employees in the workplace, where the employer or its agents or supervisory employees knows or should have known of the conduct and fails to take appropriate corrective action. In reviewing these cases, the Commission will consider the extent of the employer?s control and any other legal responsibility which the employer may have with respect to the conduct of such nonemployers.
Most women who have been sexually harassed on the job never speak up about it. Only a small minority takes informal action against harassment using company procedures. There are many reasons that women keep from speaking out such as guilt, shame, embarrassment and fear of being labeled. Young or inexperienced workers may even assume harassment is all in a day?s work. Many women may also keep silent because they distrust the procedures for handling their harassment complaints, or they don?t believe they?ll be effective. Sexual harassment is not about sexual attractiveness; it?s not about sex at all. Sexual harassment on the job is almost always an abuse of power designed to discourage women form continuing in the workforce or getting more desirable, better paying jobs. Sexual harassment is a male tactic to make a woman vulnerable in the workplace. ?Sexual harassment is hierarchical. The same man who is patting the fanny of the woman who works for him is not patting the fanny of the wife of the president of the country.? (Evans.)