Harassment can come in the form of physical or verbal actions. It happens when unwanted conduct or comments are made based on someone’s race, age, sex, national origin, religion, disability, or color. For many people, "sexual harrassment" is an emotionally charged topic, loaded with confusion and uncertainty. This is unfortunate, because sexual harassment can be readily understood. But what really is and what is not sexual harassment?
The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) defines sexual harassment in the workplace as:
Unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature constitute sexual harassment when: (1) submission to such conduct is made either explicitly or implicitly a term or condition of an individual's employment, (2) submission to or rejection of such conduct by an individual is used as a basis for employment decisions affecting such individual, or (3) such conduct has the purpose or effect of unreasonably interfering with an individual's work performance or creating an intimidating hostile or offensive working environment.
Most federal courts, including the United States Supreme Court, have accepted this definition.
Sexual harassment has been the subject of many lengthy and expensive lawsuits, suggesting it may be complicated to define and understand. On June 26, 1998, the United States Supreme Court handed down two landmark decisions that clarified the liability standards for sexual harassment. Together these two decisions established a new standard for making employers liable for a supervisor's sexual harassment of a subordinate under his or her authority.
Sexual harassment is common throughout the workplace, in all occupations and professions, educational backgrounds, age, racial and ethnic groups, and income levels. While the majority of reported cases of sexual harassment involve a male harassing a female, such cases can also involve a female harassing a male or either men or women harassing members of their own sex. In 2008, the EEOC received 13,867 complaints at the Federal level about sexual harassment, approximately 16% of which were filed by males.
Sexual harassment law in the United States has developed over the past four decades. Sexual harassment is a form of employment discrimination prohibited under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, as amended. It falls under the category of discrimination based on sex.
Sexual harassment takes a wide variety of forms, some mild and others severe. The behavior may range from a harmful joke to physical assault. Whether a particular behavior is defined as sexual harassment depends largely on whether the behavior is unwelcome to the target.
Unwelcome behavior is just that; it is behavior that is not welcome, not solicited and not wanted by the offended person. While you may perceive your behavior to be friendly and harmless, a co-worker may find the behavior offensive, so it is important to think before you act in a way that could be reasonably perceived as sexually offensive. Most adults who pause to think about it can distinguish between what might be perceived as welcome and unwelcome behavior, especially if they think carefully about how others might react.
It is important to understand that intent is not relevant in determining whether or not a behavior is sexual harassment. All that matters is the impact of the behavior on the work environment, or the offended individual. Regardless of the intent, the behavior will be judged on its impact. This fact is critically important. The statement "I didn't mean anything by it" is not a valid defense of harassing behavior.
Sexually harassing behavior shows great disrespect. Nobody is likely to harass someone he or she respects, either accidentally or deliberately. Despite some claims of over-sensitivity, most adults understand the meaning of harassment, just as they know the meaning of teasing. An attitude of consideration and respect toward all those with whom we come in contact will go a long way toward creating an atmosphere that excludes sexual harassment.
Argonne’s policy prohibits all forms of discriminatory harassment that are unlawful under applicable local, state, and federal law. Other types of federally prohibited discrimination include harassment based on race, color, religion, gender, age, national origin, disability, and genetic information. State and local laws often include additional protections. The same general principles (such as unwelcomeness, severity or pervasiveness, hostile environment) that you have learned constitute sexual harassment also apply to other forms of harassment.
Sexual harassment is illegal and unacceptable in any working environment. Argonne has policies and support structures to enable every employee to work in an environment free of harassment. Here are some additional guidelines should you encounter harassment at work:
If an unwelcome behavior of a sexual nature causes someone to take offense, it will be judged based on whether a "reasonable person" would find it offensive. This standard of a reasonable person has arisen from court attempts to interpret what behaviors should reasonably be considered sexual harassment. Since not everyone interprets behaviors in the same way, the courts find that, in order to be illegal, the conduct must be severe or pervasive and offensive to a reasonable person in similar circumstances. Under this standard, one-time unwelcome behavior will seldom qualify as sexual harassment unless it is sufficiently severe as judged by a reasonable person.
Most workplace sexual harassment is based on power and not on romance, although failed romances can lead to sexual harassment. At work some people have authority over others. In these formal power relationships, subordinate employees do not always feel free to speak up to persons of higher authority who have control over their working conditions.
Sexual harassment does not occur just between a male boss and a female subordinate. Sexual harassment may occur in a variety of circumstances, including:
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