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Sexual harassment and hostile work environments

Events of the past few weeks and months have demonstrated that sexual harassment is not on the wane in American society. Indeed, sexual harassment exists in all types of organizations.

In reading the news reports, you might not have picked up on the fact that there are two types of sexual harassment. According to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), the types are "quid pro quo" harassment and "hostile work environment" harassment.

Quid pro quo means “this for that.” In this type of harassment, sexual favors are given in exchange for something (career advancement, promotion, pay increase, etc.). The recent Harvey Weinstein case is an example: a person who was in a position of authority allegedly threatened subordinates into getting what he wanted.

The other type of harassment is hostile work environment harassment, which we will examine in this post.

Hostile work environment harassment

In this type of harassment, ongoing speech or conduct creates an intimidating, demeaning environment for the person who is being harassed, according to the EEOC.

Examples of hostile work environment harassment include: inappropriate jokes; inappropriate touching; unwanted phone, email or text messages; or the existence of sexual images.

Here are four more important facts about hostile work environment.

  • The EEOC says the big difference between hostile work environment and quid pro quo is that the hostile work environment can be caused by anyone at any level of an organization: supervisor, non-supervisor, vendor or even customer.
  • The harassment does not have to be sexual. For example, the EEOC says, “It is illegal to harass a woman by making offensive comments about women in general.”
  • The victim does not have to be the person who is being harassed; the victim can be anyone who is affected by the offensive conduct.
  • Unlawful sexual harassment can occur even if the victim’s livelihood is not affected.

When the EEOC investigates complaints of sexual harassment, it looks at the totality of the facts involved.

How to eliminate hostile work environments

Prevention is the best way to eliminate sexual harassment in the workplace, according to the EEOC. There are multiple ways to send the message that sexual harassment will not be tolerated:

  • Policies that are clearly communicated to all members of the organization
  • Training for all members of the organization
  • Procedures for reporting and responding to sexual harassment complaints

Sexual harassment can be a complex subject. If you have questions about sexual harassment, contact an attorney who has experience with this area of the law.

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