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Do comments need to be directed at you to be harassment?

It is likely universally understood that when you place a group of individuals together in an office environment in Kansas City, there will inevitably be conflicts in personality between at least some of them. For example, one of your coworkers may have a tendency to tell jokes or stories that are off-colored or sexual in nature. While not necessarily directed at you, such talk may make you feel uncomfortable. The question is does it qualify as sexual harassment? 

Knowing that not all cases of sexual harassment involve direct overtures or advances or unwanted physical contact, those who establish the guidelines for what qualifies as harassment have extended the definition to include all kinds of activities. The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has defined it to include: 

  • Unwelcome sexual advances
  • Requests for sexual favors
  • Verbal or physical harassment of a sexual nature

It also states that offensive comments about one's sex also qualify as harassment. 

What if the coworker referenced earlier continued to use the language that you found to be sexually offensive (not necessarily in reference to you or any one in your office, but in general)? You ask him or her to stop, yet he or she continues, saying that he or she has the right to say what he or she wants and that he or she is not talking about you. The EEOC includes in its definition of harassment actions that are frequent or severe enough to create a hostile or offensive work environment. While the information shared here should not be viewed as legal advice, one might certainly assume that your coworker's refusal to stop his or her offensive language would contribute to such conditions. 

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