Aug 16, 2016
By Peter Friedmann

First of all, sexual harassment is defined by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) as: “unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature…when…submission to or rejection of such conduct is used as the basis for employment decisions…or such conduct has the purpose or effect of…creating an intimidating, hostile or offensive working environment.”

Sexual harassment consists of two types of prohibited conduct:
1) quid pro quo—where submission to harassment is used as the basis for employment decisions; and
2) hostile environment—where harassment creates an offensive working environment.

What is hostile work environment harassment?

  • The American Bar Association (ABA) defines hostile work environment harassment as: “when an employee is subjected to comments of a sexual nature, offensive sexual materials, or unwelcome physical contact as a regular part of the work environment. Generally speaking, a single isolated incident will not be considered hostile work environment harassment unless it is extremely outrageous and egregious conduct. The courts look to see whether the conduct is both serious and frequent.”

Supervisors, managers, co-workers and even customers can be responsible for creating a hostile environment.

When will my employer be held liable for hostile work environment harassment?

  • The employer is liable when supervisors, managers or other employees create the hostile work environment. This is true unless the employer can prove they were informed of the conduct and took reasonable steps to prevent and promptly correct the harassing behavior. The employer must also prove the employee unreasonably failed to take advantage of the preventative or corrective action provided by the employer.
  • Examples of reasonable steps to prevent and promptly correct the harassing behavior: moving employees to different departments so they no longer come in contact with one another, switching employees to different shifts so they no longer work together, terminating the harasser, etc.

What should I do if I am being sexually harassed at work?

  • Notify your supervisor, manager or a Human Resources representative immediately. It is very important that you report and document the behavior because an employer cannot be expected to fix a problem it is not aware of.
  • If your supervisor or manager is the harasser, tell a Human Resources representative, a manager or supervisor from a different department or the harasser’s superior.
  • Victims should try to keep a detailed record of the harassment and keep this record in a place where it will not be destroyed. Keeping this information on a computer at home or somewhere else away from the workplace is a good idea.
  • Victims of sexual harassment should always contact an attorney if exhausting the options above do not resolve the situation.

Most attorneys who handle sexual harassment cases for employees also offer a free consultation to evaluate the merits of a case.