Sexual harassment is a serious issue. While sexual harassment in the workplace has been a topic of discussion for decades, the issue persists across all industries and all age groups. Unfortunately, sexual harassment training and conversations often revolve around “how not to get the company sued” rather than protecting victims and preventing future incidents. Effective conversations about sexual harassment in the workplace should focus on helping employees understand what constitutes sexual harassment, how companies should manage claims, and changing the attitudes around gender and sexual harassment in the workplace.

What is sexual harassment?

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act made workplace sexual harassment illegal. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), the federal agency tasked with enforcing Title VII, defines sexual harassment as “unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature when this conduct explicitly or implicitly affects an individual’s employment, unreasonably interferes with an individual’s work performance, or creates an intimidating, hostile, or offensive work environment”.

Applying to all employers with 15 or more employees, Title VII covers two types of sexual harassment:

  • Quid pro quo harassment: Quid pro quo harassment occurs when a person in authority, such as a supervisor or manager, requests sexual favors or inappropriate activity in exchange for a tangible job action. One of the most well-known examples of this type of harassment is a manager who asks an employee to sleep with them in exchange for a promotion.
  • Hostile work environment harassment: Hostile work environment harassment occurs when working conditions become abusive or irreparably altered as a result of unwelcome physical or verbal sexual conduct. A hostile work environment can be the result of harassment from any employee or group of employees at any level.

Be mindful of attitudes

While the term sexual harassment may bring to mind certain scenes, there is a common misconception that harassment has to be sexual in nature to be considered illegal. Offensive gender-based conduct that is severe and pervasive enough to create an abusive work environment is also illegal.

Creating an environment that respects and values the contributions of all employees is critical to ensuring that your workplace doesn’t become toxic or abusive. Nipping outdated attitudes about gender roles and norms in the bud early can significantly reduce the likelihood of gender-based discrimination that leads to a hostile work environment lawsuit.

Anyone can be a victim

While we may tend to think of women as the victims of harassment, sexual harassment also affects men in the workplace. When it comes to quid pro quo harassment, it’s important to remember that anyone can be a victim.

While male-on-female harassment is still the most common scenario in the workplace, women are frequently the perpetrators of sexual harassment against both men and other women. Male-on-male sexual harassment is also a serious concern for HR managers. It’s important to remember that sexual harassment isn’t always motivated by the aggressor’s sexual desire for the victim. It just needs to be based on the victim’s gender.

Take all claims seriously

When someone reports that they have been the victim of sexual harassment or that the workplace has become hostile due to unwanted physical or verbal harassment, managers and business owners have a duty and responsibility to take these claims seriously. Failing to act on a report can lead to lawsuits, increased turnover, and can cause serious damage to your company’s reputation.

Managers can often find themselves in a difficult situation. It isn’t uncommon for an employee to request an off-the-record conversation with a manager about sexual harassment or for a victim to ask their supervisor to not act on a report of harassment. In these situations, managers, supervisors, and business owners must remember that these reports or conversations mean that the company is now officially on notice of the harassment and must take action. Treating all claims seriously can help protect your employees and your business.

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