State and federal laws prohibit sexual harassment in the workplace, and what qualifies as sexual harassment is broad. According to the EEOC, sexual harassment includes “unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical harassment of a sexual nature.” Non-verbal conduct can qualify as well. The harassment doesn’t have to come from the victim’s supervisor; it can come from management and non-management level employees alike, and even from subordinates, clients, or customers. The severity and frequency of the harassment is important for establishing liability, as is the employer’s knowledge of the harassment.
Spotting Legally Defined Sexual Harassment
It’s important to understand the types of conduct identified above as sexual harassment. First, an “unwelcome sexual advance” is just that: a sexual advance that is unwelcome. Advances, invitations, and interactions that are not of a sexual nature would not qualify. Similarly, sexual advances that are welcome by the recipient fail to qualify. Sexual harassment law prohibits unwelcome conduct, not consensual conduct in the workplace.
Second, unwelcome requests for sexual favors, in exchange for a benefit for the employee, are illegal. These requests carry the explicit or implied promise of a benefit to the employee for providing the favor, or a threat of punishment for refusal. This conduct is known as quid pro quo sexual harassment.
Third, unwelcome sexual comments, non-verbal sexual communication, and sexual touch can all qualify as sexual harassment. Importantly, whether this conduct appears sexual in nature or unwelcome to the perpetrator does not determine whether the conduct qualifies as sexual harassment. Unlike the prior two examples, conduct here qualifies as sexual harassment even if it’s not directed at the victim. For example, if an employee’s colleagues are regularly engaged in vulgar sexual discussions or in sharing sexual images or jokes, being forced to be around this conduct, even if not directed at the employee, can be a form of illegal sexual harassment.
Touching of a sexual nature, whether with sexual intent or simply in jest, can also be sexual harassment – this includes unwelcome male-on-male touching or “horseplay” involving sexual or intimate touch. Non-verbal communication, like staring or suggestive facial, body, or hand gestures, can similarly be sexual harassment. Again, it does not matter whether the perpetrator is acting from sexual desire or as a joke – any unwelcome sexual conduct in the workplace can qualify as sexual harassment.
Addressing Unwanted Sexual Advances, Comments, and Other Harassment
If you’ve received unwanted sexual attention at work, including comments, catcalls, requests for sexual favors, or any other actions that have made you feel uncomfortable or unsafe, contact an employment law attorney immediately. At Schaefer Halleen, we regularly hold employers accountable for these issues and work with individuals who have been subjected to sexual harassment to advise and advocate for them. Please contact us if you need assistance.