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About Sexual Harassment in the Workplace

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When someone mentions sexual harassment in the workplace, your first inclination is probably to think about unwelcome sexual advances from a male employee toward a female coworker. In reality, however, sexual harassment can take many forms. In some cases, you may not even realize that the actions of a coworker are actually a form of sexual harassment.

What It Is

The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission defines sexual harassment in the workplace as unwelcome sexual advances or conduct of a sexual nature that unreasonably interferes with the performance of a person's job. Sexual harassment may range from derogatory comments to inappropriate touching, and even threats of a sexual assault such as rape. While women are still considered the main target for sexual harassment by men, it can go the other way too, or even be gender-neutral. EEOC figures state that there were 6,862 sexual harassment allegations filed in 2014, and that 17.5 percent of these charges were filed by men.

What It's Not

While the actions of a coworker who occasionally tells an off-color joke may seem inappropriate for the workplace, it does not necessarily qualify as sexual harassment. Neither does joking between coworkers or a non-serious tease. The EEOC recognizes two types of sexual harassment, known as "quid pro quo" and "hostile work environment."

Quid Pro Quo

Quid pro quo is defined as a type of harassment that occurs when a person in authority, such as a boss or supervisor, makes sexual demands that are seen as a condition for an applicant or employee to get or keep a job, receive a raise or obtain a promotion. As an example, a boss could state that an applicant must perform a sexual favor in order to get a job, or he could expect an employee to put up with continuous sexual comments to get promoted. Only a single instance of this type of harassment must occur for an applicant or employee to make a claim of quid pro quo.

Hostile Work Environment

A hostile work environment claim entails repeated occurrences of events that are sexually based that make the work environment intolerable, abusive or offensive. The hostile environment may involve a boss, coworker, a group of employees, or even clients and customers, such as when a male client makes repeated comments with a sexual overtone to a female worker, who finds them offensive or hostile, or when a group of male coworkers routinely post sexually suggestive pictures on a bulletin board in the break-room.

What to Do When It's Happening to You

The first step is to simply ask the person to stop the unwelcome behavior. If you fear that this may put your job in jeopardy, however, follow the procedures that your employer has in place to report this type of harassment. The National Women's Law Center suggests that you keep a written record or journal of the behavior. Note the date and time it occurred, and who was present. Make copies of performance evaluations and other documents that relate to the quality of your work before reporting or confronting the individual. The harasser may attempt to cover his behavior by blaming your accusations on receiving poor job performance reviews.

Filing a Lawsuit or Complaint

If you have taken these steps and the harassment continues, you may need to contact an attorney who specializes in workplace harassment to see what legal recourse you have available. Although state laws generally govern the conduct of companies that have 15 or fewer employees, if the company you work for has 15 or more employees, you have the option of filing a sexual harassment complaint with the EEOC.