Flirting. Telling off-color jokes. Showing favoritism. It’s often a fine line when it comes to what’s acceptable in a professional setting and what’s not.
There are many forms of workplace sexual harassment, and some are much more obvious than others. Below, we’ll discuss how sexual harassment and discrimination often manifest in an occupational setting.
If you have experienced inappropriate sexual conduct, sex-based discrimination, or sexual violence in the workplace, please contact DiPiero Simmons McGinley & Bastress, PLLC to discuss your case in further detail. We provide free and confidential consultations to help survivors of workplace sexual harassment exercise their legal rights and take control of their futures.
What Is Workplace Sexual Harassment?
The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) states that it is unlawful to harass any person based on or in relation to that person’s sex. The EEOC includes actions such as:
- Unwelcome sexual advances,
- Requests for sexual favors,
- Verbal or physical harassment of a sexual nature, and
- Offensive remarks about a person’s sex
within the umbrella category of workplace sexual harassment.
An action or statement does not need to be explicitly sexual in nature, nor does it need to be specific to one individual person in order to be considered sexual harassment. A comment that generalizes all women or all men in a negative way, for example, is neither sexually explicit nor targeting one person. But it can still be a form of workplace sexual harassment.
Sexual harassment can be considered a form of sex discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, a law which makes employment discrimination based on “race, color, religion, sex, and national origin” illegal. Title VII defines two categories of illegal workplace sexual harassment:
- Quid pro quo harassment
- Hostile work environment
What Is Quid Pro Quo Workplace Harassment?
Quid pro quo—Latin for “what for what” or “something for something”—describes a type of workplace harassment in which job benefit is exchanged for sexual benefit. Most often, a subordinate employee is asked to provide sexual favors in return for job security or advancement. Common examples of this form of workplace sexual harassment are:
- When an employee is promised a promotion or raise for going on a date or awarding sexual favors to a superior
- When an employee is wrongfully terminated or demoted because they refused to grant sexual favors to a superior
What Is a Hostile Work Environment?
A hostile work environment creates an abusive workplace culture that negatively impacts an employee’s ability to perform their job. It is considered to be one of the most common types of workplace discrimination.
A hostile work environment may come about through physical, verbal, non-verbal, or virtual harassment or a combination of more than one of these forms of inappropriate and unlawful sexual behavior.
Physical Sexual Harassment
Physical harassment is often the most obvious, violent, and destructive form of workplace sexual harassment. Even (and sometimes especially) when played off as a harmless joke, unwanted physical contact leaves a lasting, damaging effect on the victim.
The following are examples that may be considered physical sexual harassment in the workplace:
- Any unwanted touching of a person’s body, clothing, or personal items
- Massaging, hugging, or caressing a person without their consent
- Cornering or following
- Standing too close or brushing against a person’s body
- Blocking someone’s path
- Touching a person’s genitals
- Rape and sexual assault
Verbal Sexual Harassment
The most common form of workplace sexual harassment, verbal harassment, is also one of the most difficult to define. One person’s idea of appropriate workplace conversation may cause severe anxiety in another. In general, verbal sexual harassment is unwanted, hostile, or negative remarks about or directed toward a person or group based on sex or gender.
These are just a few examples of what may be considered verbal sexual harassment at work:
- Discussing or criticizing the appearance of others
- Discussing or asking questions about a person’s sex life or sexual orientation
- Repeatedly asking someone for a date
- Explicitly or implicitly asking for sexual favors
- Making assumptions based on gender stereotypes
- Conversations or jokes of an explicitly sexual nature
- Inappropriate nicknames
- Spreading lies or rumors about a person
Non-Verbal Sexual Harassment
A perpetrator does not always need to touch or speak to another person to convey a sexual message. Sometimes non-verbal actions serve to create an oppressive and discriminatory work environment for the victim of unwelcome sexual advances.
Non-verbal harassment might involve:
- Sending photos, videos, or messages of a sexual nature
- Leaving unwanted notes or gifts
- Staring or taking someone’s picture
- Following a person to their car or the restroom
- Exposing oneself to another person
- Suggestive gestures like winking
- Showing a person’s private messages or photos publicly without their consent
Virtual Sexual Harassment
More and more, workplace sexual harassment is happening through phones and computers—although more devious offenders may refrain from engaging in such actions that leave a paper trail of evidence.
Whether it transpires through email, text messages, social media, or phone calls, an employee may be harassed during or outside of working hours by:
- Unsolicited calls, emails, or messages of a sexual nature
- Inappropriate pictures or videos
- Pornographic material
- “Sexting” messages
- Another person posting photos or information about them without their consent
Who Can Commit Workplace Sexual Harassment?
According to the EEOC, a perpetrator of workplace sexual harassment is not always a supervisor, although an unequal power dynamic often puts subordinate employees in a more vulnerable position. Even individuals not employed by the company can be guilty of at-work harassment. An employer has an obligation to protect employees from harassment, whether it comes from inside or outside of the organization.
Many forms of workplace sexual harassment, especially those categorized as hostile work environments, can be committed by a:
- Boss or direct supervisor
- Supervisor of another department
- Colleague or coworker
- Company owner or manager
- Third-party employee
- Client or customer of the company
- Business partner
- Vendor or distributor
- Maintenance worker
- Delivery person
Anyone can be a victim of sexual harassment at work. Age, gender, background, sexual orientation, and job title are not factors that can shield a person from harassment. When someone says they have been victimized by unwanted sexual conduct, it’s important to believe them—even if they don’t align with your conception of the “typical” victim of workplace discrimination.
What Are the Effects of Workplace Sexual Harassment?
The effects of workplace sexual harassment can be vastly diverse from case to case, impacting the victim’s life in any number of severe ways—from losing one’s source of income to struggling with the immobilizing symptoms of PTSD.
The Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN) describes some of the most common symptoms associated with sexual harassment:
- Feelings of powerlessness and loss of control
- Anger, shame, guilt, fear, and humiliation
- Anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
- Increased stress levels
- Avoidance of the workplace
- Sleep and eating disturbances
- Substance abuse
- Suicidal ideation
If someone else’s actions are causing you to experience any of these symptoms, you do not need to bear them in silence. No one should go to work fearing sexual harassment or worrying they will lose their job if they speak up. We are on your side—and so is the law.
What To Do if You Are the Victim of Workplace Sexual Harassment
If you were victimized by one of the many forms of workplace sexual harassment, contact a law firm experienced in employment law to discuss your case. Those with grounds for legal action may be entitled to recover damages for lost wages and job opportunities, emotional distress, and other damages.
We defend victims only at our Charleston-based personal injury law office. While some lawyers make a living protecting big companies from employment discrimination lawsuits, we side ourselves with the individuals—individuals harmed in hostile work environments and by those who take advantage of their positions of power.
We are here to listen. Contact our office to schedule a confidential, no-obligation meeting with an experienced employment law attorney from DiPiero Simmons McGinley & Bastress, PLLC. We provide free consultations to victims of the many forms of workplace sexual harassment that occur in West Virginia.
We will be open and honest about the merits and challenges of your case. You’ll walk away from your free consultation with an understanding of your legal rights and options and the resources to move forward if you decide to take legal action.