Sexual harassment in the workplace is nothing new, but the media attention it has been getting the last few years is. Employees are no longer staying quiet about the inappropriate and frightful behaviors they encounter on the job, and social media has made it easy to call out offenders, which, in some cases, can lead to legal accountability.
With the spotlight on this charged topic, now is the time to ensure your employees have proper training on what counts as sexual harassment. Otherwise, you can find yourself involved in a lawsuit.
Requirements for sexual harassment
Employees may often tease each other good-naturedly or even with malice, but it does not count as sexual harassment until it reaches a certain level, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. First, the recipient must be opposed to being the target of the behavior. The harmful interactions must also revolve around gender or sexuality (or any protected class for harassment in general). It must be repetitive and create an abusive work environment that affects work performance in two ways:
- Quid pro quo: When one worker makes sexual advances toward or demands sexual favors from another in exchange for employment perks, such as a promotion, and rejection of the behavior results in negative consequences for the recipient.
- Hostility: When workers use crude language or gestures, display sexually offensive material, make inappropriate jokes, comment on physical attributes, talk about sexual acts or touch someone else in an unwelcome way.
While most of the time the subject is sexual, it can also focus on gender; for example, making demeaning remarks about all women or all men, says the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
Sexual harassment can come from colleagues, supervisors and even customers. Make sure you have a clear and consistent system in place for dealing with such behavior from each of these parties. Do not retaliate against those who report harassment, even if you believe it to be false, or else you may face another legal issue. Go through the proper procedure to investigate and settle the matter.