As the victim of sexual harassment in two different previous workplaces, I think it’s important that everyone understands what constitutes sexual harassment and what steps they should take to alleviate the situation. Despite presidential candidate Herman Cain bringing this issue to the forefront, it’s not a political issue. And it’s certainly not a racial issue, like some would have you believe. It’s a basic workplace rights issue.
“There’s no bright-line test on sexual harassment since the courts—including the U.S. Supreme Court—have made it clear that it will depend on the frequency and severity of the conduct, whether the conduct is physically threatening or humiliating and whether the conduct interferes with the employee’s job performance,” says Paul O. Lopez, director and chair of the litigation department at law firm Tripp Scott.
How to Recognize Sexual Harassment
According to Lopez, here is a list of inappropriate conduct that will be viewed as sexual harassment by the courts, if continual and repeated:
• Comments and remarks of a sexual nature that refer to a person’s physical appearance and/or genitalia.
• Inappropriately touching someone in a sexually provocative manner.
• Making requests (typically a supervisor) to an employee about having sex and/or going on a date with another employee.
• Forwarding pictures that are sexually graphic in nature. This could mean images that were found online or personal images as well.
• Forwarding of literature that is sexually explicit or provocative in nature. An example might be: a sexual story or a joke, or personal experiences.
Besides these five guidelines, the courts are going to be doing research into the employee’s day-to-day life at work. This means whether or not their work was impacted, they were possibly passed up for a promotion, or in a worst-case scenario, the employee was fired because they said something about the sexual harassment.
“There must be a finding of an adverse employment action for a liability to take place to a company for sexual harassment. Otherwise, it may just be a situation where one employee has a potential claim against another employee for assault and/or battery,” says Lopez.
What to Do About It
While knowing how to recognize what’s sexual harassment and what’s not is obviously important, it’s also important to know what to do as the victim. Lopez provided the following tips on protocol:
• Review the employee handbook or policy manual about sexual harassment
• Figure out who you are supposed to report it to and then report it to that person—typically it will be to human resources
• If there is no policy in place (which is a big mistake for employers), then report it to a supervisor to ensure that the company is placed on notice of the alleged harassment
Hopefully, you will never have to be involved in an uncomfortable situation at work. However, it does happen, and it is important to take the right steps to make sure the situation gets solved quickly and in an appropriate manner.
Have you ever had to deal with sexual harassment in the workplace? What steps did you take in order to solve the problem?
Heather R. Huhman is a career expert, experienced hiring manager, and founder & president of Come Recommended, a content marketing consultancy for organizations with products that target job seekers and employers. She is also the author of Lies, Damned Lies & Internships (2011) and #ENTRYLEVELtweet: Taking Your Career from Classroom to Cubicle.