What does sexual harassment look like? Can a grin be sexual harassment? Is there a "gray area" between real harassment and isolated instances of bad behavior? Questions like these make many people hesitant to report sexual harassment.
The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) says "simple teasing, offhand comments or isolated incidents that are not very serious" is not sexual harassment. It crosses the line into sexual harassment when the harassment "is so frequent or severe that it "creates a hostile or offensive work environment or when it results in an adverse employment decision," such as firing or demotion.
What exactly is a hostile work environment? What is an offensive work environment? What is an adverse employment decision?
A good way to answer those questions is to look at specific examples, like a recent case from a Colorado corrections facility.
Is This Colorado Case Sexual Harassment?
A lawsuit filed in federal district court in Colorado alleges that a female corrections worker was sexually harassed by a corrections captain, subjected to a hostile work environment and faced retaliation for reporting the alleged harassment.
The lawsuit alleges that the corrections captain and the female had a sexual encounter. Later, she told him it would not happen again and she refused his sexual advances. The following events ensued.
1. The corrections captain allegedly began to stalk the victim. This included taking an office next to hers that was separated by a glass partition.
2. He suggested that they "hook up." When she declined, he allegedly said she was making a mistake and her job would be easier if she complied.
3. She filed a formal complaint, but the harassment continued. He found ways to be near her and brush up against her. He gave her lecherous grins and mean faces. A supervisor dismissed these as nothing and said he could not do anything unless she was touched. The supervisor said she should get over it and do her job.
4. The corrections system dismissed her formal complaint, and the adverse treatment escalated. The lawsuit says his stalking resumed, he began to discredit her job performance and other employees shunned her.
5. She filed a complaint with the EEOC. A doctor diagnosed severe depression and anxiety. The doctor recommended that she be given a work environment that prevented contact with the alleged perpetrator.
6. The supervisor refused the doctor's request, saying the alleged harasser had passed a polygraph test, other employees refuted her claims and the harasser said the alleged victim actually was sexually harassing him.
7. Finally, she requested a transfer and was placed on unpaid leave.
The court system will determine if this a case of sexual harassment. When viewed in isolation, a lecherous grin or being critical of performance might not be sexual harassment. But the totality of the circumstances can paint a different picture.