Sexual Harassment in the Workplace: What You Need to Know

Sexual harassment is illegal and a form of discrimination that violates Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. Sexual harassment, by law, is defined as unwelcome visual, verbal, physical or non-verbal conduct that is of a sexual nature or based on someone’s sex which is pervasive and affects working conditions or creates a hostile work environment.

Understanding What Constitutes as Sexual Harassment

The law’s definition of sexual harassment contains several key phrases that should be defined and understood.

First, consider what it means for the conduct to be unwelcome. In order for the conduct to be illegal, it must be unwelcome. Unwelcome is unwanted conduct. It is important to communicate – verbally, in writing or through your body language – to the harasser that the conduct makes you feel uncomfortable and that you want it to stop.

Next, consider whether the conduct is of a sexual nature or based on sex. Some examples include:

  • Threats for rejecting or refusing sexual advances.
  • Commenting about clothing, body, personal relationships or personal behavior.
  • Requesting dates or sexual favors.
  • Making sexual jokes.
  • Spreading rumors about a person’s sex-life.
  • Inappropriate touching of clothing or the person’s body.
  • Touching a person without their consent.
  • Staring at a person’s body.
  • Making derogatory gestures.

In order to be considered “harassment,” the conduct must be severe or pervasive. Isolated comments, simple teasing and one-time incidents are generally not considered sexual harassment. One sexually suggestive comment may not be pervasive or severe, even if you’re offended by it or it was inappropriate.

The conduct may be considered pervasive if it is less severe and occurs frequently over a long period of time. How many times have these incidents occurred? How long has the conduct been going on? Are other people of the same gender being treated this way?

In order to be considered sexual harassment, the conduct must have affected working conditions or created a hostile environment.

Let’s say that you refused a sexual advance and were:

  • Reassigned to a less desirable position
  • Fired
  • Demoted
  • Refused a promotion
  • Given a poor evaluation
  • Reassigned to a new location or shift

In these cases, the conduct would likely be considered sexual harassment and would have almost definitely affected your working conditions.

But you may also claim unlawful sexual harassment if the conduct is interfering with your performance in the workplace, or creates a hostile, intimidating or offensive working environment.

What to Do if You’re a Victim of Sexual Harassment

If you believe that you are a victim of sexual harassment, it’s important to start gathering and preserving evidence. Additionally, you may also want to consult with a lawyer who specializes in sexual harassment.

A New York sexual harassment lawyer offers some tips on collecting evidence:

  • Photograph inappropriate displays, images or cartoons that may indicate sexual harassment.
  • Write down any verbal harassing statements directed at you. If the statements are in written form (via email or letter), keep them. Ideally, the statement should be saved electronically and include a time stamp, such as through a text message.
  • Learn more about your employer’s complaint procedure, and file a formal sexual harassment complaint.