Federal law forbids sexual harassment in the workplace. But the law raises many questions, including: What is sexual harassment in a work environment? Is sexual harassment only physical, or can it be verbal? How frequent does the conduct need to be, in order to be considered sexual harassment?
The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) says sexual harassment consists of "unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature constitute sexual harassment." The EEOC says the behavior must:
- Affect an individual's employment
- Interfere with the victim's work performance, or
- Create an intimidating, hostile, or offensive work environment
In this post, we will focus on hostile work environment.
What's a hostile work environment?
Many sexual harassment cases hinge on whether there's a hostile work environment. Here are the factors that the legal system uses to determine if a hostile work environment existed:
- Whether the harassing conduct was verbal, physical or both
- How often the conduct occurred
- Whether the conduct was hostile or offensive
- Whether the harassment came from a supervisor or co-worker
- Whether other workers participated in the harassment
- Whether the harassment was widespread (directed at many people) or whether it focused on the victim
The victim's legal team must be able to show that the victim believed the conduct was "hostile, abusive or offensive." Plus, the average person must believe the conduct was hostile, abusive or offensive.
With so many variables to consider in sexual harassment cases, they are fact-dependent. In other words, no cases are exactly the same.
The number of sexual harassment charges
Hostile work environments are at the root of many sexual harassment charges, and the number of sexual harassment charges filed with the EEOC nationwide has remained fairly constant in the past seven years. The peak was 2016 with 12,860 charges, and the low number was 12,146 in 2014. Here are the EEOC's sexual-harassment statistics from recent years.
These figures represent only those charges filed with the EEOC. The numbers don't include charges filed with state or local authorities.