Sexual harassment at work and behavior that leads to it.
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What Qualifies as Sexual Harassment at Work?

What Qualifies as Sexual Harassment at Work?

When we talk about sexual harassment, we think of a male employee making repeated unwanted sexual advances to a female employee. While much of sexual harassment in the workplace involves these situations, it is not the only possible situation. The gender of the parties involved in sexual harassment is irrelevant. This means that sexual harassment can occur between two people of the same sex, with or without any sexual motivation or attraction.

So what kind of conduct constitutes sexual harassment?

Under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, sexual harassment consists of:

  • unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature that:
    • affects the victim’s employment, 
    • interferes with the victim’s ability to work, 
    • or creates a hostile work environment.

We will evaluate these four concepts further below.

Unwelcome conduct: Legislators and the courts understand that workers will interact with each other in ways that involve sexual attraction or take someone’s sex into account. For example, employees may tell a sexist joke or ask a coworker out. The recipient of this joke could have different reactions, and the interaction could be classified as:

  • Consensual and asked for
  • Not asked for, but appreciated
  • Offensive, but tolerated
  • Totally rejected

It is sometimes difficult to decide to classify a particular behavior and not all of these behaviors are necessarily sexual harassment. Then there is the additional variable of how often this behavior occurs.

Sexual nature: Name aside, sexual harassment does not need to be motivated by sexual desire or attraction. As long as the harassment is based on the sex of the victim, it can be sexual harassment.

Affects the victim’s employment: This refers to a legally recognized form of sexual harassment, often called quid pro quo. It is sexual harassment in which the victim accepts sexual advances because it results in an employment benefit or because it allows the victim to avoid an adverse employment action.

Interferes with the victim’s ability to work or creates a hostile work environment: This is another legally recognized form of sexual harassment. By hostile work environment, we refer to a work environment that becomes sufficiently offensive, intimidating, or hostile as a result of unwanted sexual conduct.

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