Is standing too close sexual harassment?
The workplace is no stranger to sexual harassment issues, and it’s more prevalent than most think. This does not mean that workers don’t have rights or laws in place designed to address workplace harassment. It does indicate that many workers may not be aware of the types of behavior that legally constitute sexual harassment.
These acts typically include a number of normalized workplace behaviors. For instance, being repeatedly called “baby” or “bimbo” at work could invoke the rights outlined in both federal and state laws.
Unwelcome touching, repeatedly standing very close or leaning over into one’s personal space and even staring at body parts and making comments about one’s physical appearance in a derogatory and offensive manner could all constitute sexual harassment.
Of course, inappropriate requests for sexual favors and unwelcome sexual advances are also part and parcel of the legally prohibited sexual harassment schemata. Employers must carefully train and warn their workers to be aware of the types of behaviors that could trigger negative consequences. Every worker, male or female, has the right to work in an environment free of sexual harassment and discrimination.
Who can be liable for sexual harassment?
Another pressing issue when it comes to sexual harassment is deciding who should be held responsible for the harassing behavior of workers. The breakdown includes several parties that are important to consider any time sexual harassment becomes an issue in the workplace:
- Your Employer
- Your Co-Worker
- Your Employer’s Customers/Clients
When an Employer is Liable
An employer can be vicariously liable for the acts of its employees under certain conditions. The most important consideration involves how much authority and control the employee has over the complaining party.
An employer will always be liable for sexual harassment carried out by its supervisors when the harassment results in tangible employment action. Tangible employment action could include firing, demotion, exclusion or even pay cuts. The basic meaning of this legal tenet is that the sexual harassment takes the form of an decisive action – the type that affects a significant change in employment status, according to the EEOC.
Questions can arise when determining whether an employee is a ‘supervisor’ for purposes of holding a company liable. For instance, there may be a manager on your job who is engaging in sexually harassing behavior, but who does not yet have the official title of “supervisor” added to his or her job status.
According to the EEOC, an individual can be considered a supervisor under two general conditions. First is that the person, although not formally recognized as a supervisor, has authority to undertake or recommend tangible employment decisions.
The second condition is that an individual has authority to direct an employee’s daily work activities. This situation may arise when an individual may not be formally recognized as a supervisor, but has the authority to increase workload or take other actions that might harass an employee in their daily work experience.
A third possibility for employer liability can occur even if an individual has no connection to the supervisory chain of command. In this instance, an employer can be held liable simply because the harassed employee believes the individual to be in a position of authority or believes the individual has “broad, delegated authority” to influence company decisions.
When Your Co-Worker Keeps At it
According to antidiscrimination law, a co-worker can be the source of a sexual harassment lawsuit, but the situation differs slightly from when a supervisor is to blame. When your coworker is the harasser, the employer can be held liable for allowing a hostile work environment to form or continue to go forward unchecked.
Asking for sexual favors, making repeated, offensive comments, or attempting unwanted sexual contact are all ways that a co-worker can create a hostile work environment. If an employer becomes aware of the situation or should reasonably have known of its existence and does nothing to stop it, including not reprimanding the aggressors, the company could be held liable.
This is true even if the harassment occurs outside the normal office environment. If a co-worker is threatening or harassing you at an office party or on a business trip for instance, the same rules apply.
Even if you are not the employee directly experiencing the harassment, you may have a case. Bystander sexual harassment occurs when the sexual advances, unwelcome remarks and more are happening to someone in your office or to someone in you company, but are not necessarily directed at you. In these instances, you may have a claim for sexual harassment even if you only witness its occurrence around you.
Sexual Harassment From Your Employer’s Customers or Clients
Workers forced to endure the sexually offensive behavior of a company’s clients, customers or even independent contractors could also have a claim. Third-party harassment occurs when someone other than a supervisor or co-worker is the main source of the unwelcome, harassing behavior.
Here again, this type of claim rests on the fact that an employer is responsible for keeping its workplace discrimination- and harassment-free. An employer that knows or should have known of a hostile work environment created due to customers’ or clients’ inappropriate behavior, could be held liable for allowing that environment to continue without remedy or reprimand.
Broad Applications in Sexual Harassment Claims
Those who engage in sexually harassing behavior in a work environment may be under the impression that their actions won’t be punished or interpreted as illegal. It’s important for employees to know their rights and to know when a company can be held liable and when it cannot.
Rather than feeling threatened by co-workers, supervisors and even customers and clients, victims of sexual harassment should be prepared to contact an experienced employment rights attorney right away should their rights be compromised.