Why do so many employers ignore reports of sexual harassment?
Most employers get away with such ignorance only because the employees aren’t aware of their right to have a workplace free of sexual harassment.
What is sexual harassment? Which sexual conducts are illegal under the law? Are employers liable for such conduct?
By learning the answers to these questions, you can force your employer to attend to your problems. Along with the above questions, we’ll also look at –
- US laws against sexual harassment
- Quid pro quo harassment
- Hostile work environment
- Various examples of sexual harassment
US laws against sexual harassment
Under the US law, all businesses are legally liable for providing a safe workplace to their employees. This liability is covered under Title VII of the federal law, and is enforced by the Equal employment opportunity commission (EEOC).
The role of EEOC in addressing sexual harassment
All businesses must answer to the EEOC, if it’s found that they failed to curb workplace harassment. The commission can levy harsher penalties if they find that the employer knew of the harassment, but did not attend to it.
Employees can also seek protection from harassment under state laws too. However, the protections vary from state to state. It’s best to study the law before deciding if you should file your complaint with the state commission or the EEOC.
You should start by looking into your harassment prevention training. The training would help you understand the company policy on sexual harassment, available resources, and your reporting options. And it would guide you with the procedure of filing a complaint.
As stated earlier, before you file a complaint, whether with your employer, or a government agency, you should have a clear understanding of what you are reporting. You can develop such an understanding by going through the company’s harassment prevention training. It might help you resolve the issue without having to resort to external channels.
What is harassment?
The Title VII of the law protects from workplace harassment when it’s based on your traits (Who you are) then your behavior at work or your work performance (What you do).
Any unwelcome conduct that’s based on these protected traits is harassment. Under the law, such behavior become illegal if
- Enduring such conduct is a condition of continued employment, or
- It creates a work environment that’s intimidating, abuse or hostile.
Examples of sexual harassment that you need to know
Title VII also protects employees against sexual harassment. It treats such conduct as a form of discrimination. Your employer can be held liable if it ignores, or fails to address the behavior.
EEOC defines two types of sexual harassment –
Quid pro quo harassment
All incidents of sexual harassment that involve an employee being forced to accept the unwelcome conduct as a condition for continuation of employment, promotion, or salary decisions fall under this category.
If someone suffers unfair employment decisions, such as being fired, or loss of salary, only because of not submitting to such demands, then they should report the action as quid pro quo harassment.
Under the law, employers are directly liable for quid pro quo harassment by supervisors.
Hostile work environment
If the unwelcome sexual conduct is making it difficult for you to do your work, then you should report it as a sexually hostile work environment harassment. But, you’ll need to prove that the harassment is pervasive and severe enough to interfere with your duties, or if it results in an adverse employment decision.
Earlier this year, in response to an appeal, the fourth circuit ruled that the employer was not eligible for punitive damages. The employee was unable to prove that the employer discriminated with reckless indifference to his right to have a harassment-free workplace.
Make sure to go through the company policies when reporting such harassment. If you’re complaining against a non-supervisory employee, it’s a favorable practice to lodge a complaint with your employer.
Some cases can also be a combination of the two. For example, if a supervisor communicates an implicit threat via a hostile work environment to an employee. Under such conditions, the hostile work environment harassment also becomes a case of quid pro quo harassment.
Furthermore, if the employee protests, or files a complaint, and the situation results into the employee’s wrongful termination, then both sexual harassment and retaliation have occurred. Title VII protects employees against retaliation for protesting or reporting sexual harassment.
More examples of sexual harassment
When reporting sexual harassment, you should also make a note of the nature of the harassment. Here are the three most common examples of sexual harassment.
Verbal sexual harassment
Such harassment includes verbal misconducts of sexual and derogatory nature, such as use of slurs, jokes, name calling, insults, and indirect disparaging remarks.
Physical sexual harassment
Sexual harassment become physical when the victim is touched in an inappropriate way. Examples include bumping, patting, pinching, touching and so on. Most importantly, it becomes harassment when the conduct is against the victim’s will.
Non-verbal sexual harassment
Examples include physical conducts such as blocking or cornering a person, or blowing kisses, staring and winking at them. Display of sexually suggestive printed material and sending such material via electronic means is also a form of non-verbal sexual harassment.
Isolated incidents of sexual harassment
A major condition for judging a conduct as sexual harassment is its frequency. Isolated incidents of an unwelcome conduct do not qualify. Such conduct becomes harassment only when the conduct is pervasive and repeated frequently. There are two exceptions to this rule –
- A single, unusually severe conduct can qualify as sexual harassment. This is especially true if the unwelcome conduct is physical.
- If it’s a case of quid pro quo harassment by a supervisor.
The examples of sexual harassment covered above aren’t the only forms of sexual harassment. Employees may face a combination of verbal, physical and non-verbal harassment. A hostile work environment may give way to quid pro quo. The abuser may be a co-worker, supervisor or your employer. Or, it could be a case of retaliation.
Under federal and state laws, your employer is liable for protecting you from sexual harassment. You can file a complaint with the EEOC, if they fail to discharge their duty.
Employers cannot avoid liability if it’s a case of quid pro quo harassment by a supervisor. But, in case of a hostile work environment, they can avoid liability if they can prove that necessary protections were in place, and that you failed to use those protections.
This is why it’s important for you to understand what harassment is. Go through the official sexual harassment policies and procedures. Take your harassment prevention training seriously. Unless you are aware of your rights under the federal and state laws, your employer may be able to avoid liability, even if they fail to protect you from sexual harassment.