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What constitutes workplace harassment?

A few weeks ago, our blog discussed how those employees who are victimized by sexual harassment do have options for seeking justice. In today's post, we'll expand this discussion by taking a closer look at sexual harassment itself, namely the two forms of this conduct that are expressly prohibited by both federal and state law.

Hostile work environment harassment

According to the U.S. Department of Labor, this type of harassment exists wherever co-workers, supervisors, contractors, customers or anyone else with whom a victim comes into contact while on the job persist in unwelcome and offensive conduct that serves to foster a work environment best described as hostile.

By way of illustration, the type of conduct that can create a hostile work environment includes speech, anecdotes, jokes, gestures and comments of a sexual nature, or the posting of sexually suggestive or explicit material. Also included within this broad spectrum of forbidden conduct is unwelcome and unnecessary physical contact.    

It's important to note, however, that this type of harassment must generally be both severe and pervasive in order to be actionable, meaning a single occurrence is generally not enough to support a claim.

Furthermore, where this type of harassment is being perpetrated by co-workers, company policy may dictate that the victim must first report the matter to Human Resources, giving them a reasonable amount of time to investigate and rectify any issues.

Quid pro quo harassment

The DOL defines this type of harassment as existing in those situations where a employment-related decision is predicated upon an employee's acceptance or rejection of sexual favors/advances.

The agency indicates that this type of harassment is generally perpetrated by higher-level employees in a position to make important decisions regarding matters like promotion, demotion and termination.

Examples of prohibited conduct might include a supervisor conditioning a promotion on sexual cooperation by the victim or demoting the victim for rejecting sexual advances.

We will continue to explore this important topic in future posts. In the meantime, consider speaking with an experienced legal professional if you believe that you have been the victim of sexual harassment, and would like to learn more about your rights and your options.

Source: U.S. Department of Labor, "What do I need to know about ... workplace harassment," Accessed Oct. 31, 2014

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