Sexual harassment is a serious matter, and knowing your rights when a co-worker engages in inappropriate or unwanted acts directed at you, or even at a co-worker of yours, can mean all the difference. See below for more info on important legal considerations when you feel threatened by sexual harassment at work.
Could “standing too close” be considered sexual harassment?
The workplace is no stranger to sexual harassment issues, and it’s more prevalent than many people would 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 are not 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”, “sweetheart”, “sweetie”, “honey” or “bimbo” at work could invoke the rights outlined in both federal and state laws.
Other examples such as: touching, repeatedly standing very close or leaning over into one’s personal space without their consent and especially staring at body parts and making comments about one’s physical appearance in a derogatory and offensive manner can constitute sexual harassment.
Of course, inappropriate requests for sexual favors and unwelcome sexual advances are also part of the legally prohibited sexual harassment. Employers have the responsibility of carefully training and warning 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 no matter what their job is.
Who can be held responsible for sexual harassment?
Another issue when it comes to sexual harassment is deciding who is to 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 Supervisor
- Your Co-Worker
- Your Employer’s Customers/Clients
When an Employer is Liable
An employer can be 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 adverse employment action. Tangible adverse employment actions can 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.
Questions can arise when determining whether the harasser is a ‘supervisor’ for purposes of holding a company liable. For instance, there may be a manager or someone with management authority on your job who is engaging in sexually harassing behavior, but who does not yet have the official title of “supervisor” or ‘manager’ added to his or her job status.
According to the EEOC, an individual can be considered a supervisor under two conditions: First is that the person, although not formally recognized as a supervisor, must have the authority to undertake or recommend tangible employment decisions on behalf of the employer. 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 or decrease 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.
If Your Co-Worker Won’t stop Harassing You
According to anti-discrimination law, a co-worker can be the source of a sexual harassment lawsuit, but the situation differs somewhat 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 typical office environment. If a co-worker is threatening or harassing you at an office party, from his or her personal cell phone, or on a business trip for instance, the same rules apply.
Even if you are not the employee directly experiencing the harassment, you may be able to bring a case.
Sexual Harassment Can Occur from Your Employer’s Customers or Clients
Employees can also be 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.
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 constitute illegal activity.
Rather than feeling threatened or unsafe by co-workers, supervisors and even customers and clients, victims of sexual harassment should be prepared with knowledge of their rights should their rights be compromised.
If you have been sexually harassed in the workplace, seek legal representation from an experienced employment law attorney as soon as possible. There are strict time restrictions, known as statutes of limitations as to when a lawsuit can be filed. The experienced attorneys at Shegerian Conniff are ready to hold your employer accountable, fight for your legal rights and seek justice on your behalf. Click to contact us today or call us at 310-322-7500 for a free consultation.