Business people know the basics of sexual harassment in the workplace:
- Don’t demand sex from your employees.
- Don’t display pornographic materials in the building.
- Don’t fondle your workers.
- Don’t base employment decisions on sex – or sexual orientation.
But a lot more is involved. Did you know:
- Clueless doesn’t cut it. The employer is liable if he knew – or should have known – sexual harassment was going on at his shop and failed to take appropriate corrective action. “Should have known” covers a lot of ground.
- A company is also responsible for the sexual harassment by its vendors and customers.
- The victim does not have to be personally harassed, but could be anyone affected by the offensive conduct.
- Anyone can be sexually harassed by anyone else; women can sexually harass men or even other women just as easily as men can harass women.
- The cost of sexual harassment – beyond the damages awarded in successful lawsuits – includes absenteeism, lower productivity, increased health-care costs, poor morale, employee turnover, and loss of reputation, customers and revenue.
Sex in the workplace
Sexual harassment is about discrimination, not about sex, and is therefore covered by Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
In the last 50 years, Congress and the courts have amended Title VII to permit victims of sexual harassment to recover damages (including punitive) as well as making “injury” easier to prove, although injury is not necessary to prove sexual harassment.
Sexual harassment falls into two distinct categories – tangible job benefit and hostile work environment.
The quid pro quo of demanding that an employee provide sex for employment considerations is fairly easy to recognize. In these cases, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) states, “an employer will be held strictly liable” – not only for the actions of his employees, but third-party suppliers as well.
The “hostile work environment” may not be quite so apparent.
A hostile work environment occurs when a co-worker or supervisor, “engaging in unwelcome and inappropriate sexually based behavior, renders the workplace atmosphere intimidating, hostile, or offensive,” according to the EEOC.
Does this mean you can’t compliment a co-worker on his attire?
Well, it depends. “That’s a nice outfit” is way different from “I really like the way you fill out your trousers.”
Courts use a “reasonable person” standard when it comes to determine what is offensive, and most reasonable people would be offended by such a remark in the workplace.
Does it mean you can’t tease people?
Teasing is OK – as are offhand comments, jokes and isolated incidents – as long as they are not “extremely serious.” What the heck is “extremely serious”? I’m pretty sure it’s one of those “I’ll know it when I hear it” kinds of things. If you’re like me and love a good joke, be judicious about what you say and who you tell.
Does it mean you can’t carry on an office romance? Some estimate that as many as 30% of marriages originate in the workplace. You practically spend your life there, so that’s not much of a surprise.
But make no mistake: A boss who sleeps with an employee is looking for trouble, pure and simple. Any job action – raises, discipline, promotions, transfers, etc. – taken by the boss can be construed as sexual harassment, either by the employee/lover or other employees.
Even consensual sexual relationships between co-workers can have destructive potential. And the employer is responsible for all of it, even if he was ignorant as to what was going on. I’m OK with that: If, as a supervisor, you don’t have the open communication and trust levels necessary to learn about sexual harassment, you’re not worthy of the title.
Underlying all of it is whether the attention – whether it is sexual propositions or off-color jokes – is unwelcome and unwanted. Training or business coaching can help in these situations.
Where does your company stand? Ask yourself:
- How can I prevent sexual harassment at work?
- What are my company’s policies and procedures on sexual harassment?
- How do I enforce the policy?
- What issues are covered?
- What kind of training do I have regarding sexual harassment?
If you have no policy in place, do it now. Don’t get caught with your pants down.
Do you know anyone who has been sexually harassed on the job? If so, what was the outcome? Please share in the comments.