Yes, and it’s illegal, too
Most people know that unwelcome touching, hugging or other physical contact is not acceptable behavior at work. It’s called sexual harassment, which is illegal under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Sexual harassment can also be verbal.
We’re not talking about the isolated sexual innuendo. Lewd remarks and sexual banter can turn into sexual harassment when the conduct is severe or pervasive enough to create a harmful, hostile work environment.
The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) includes verbal conduct in its definition of sexual harassment: “unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature…that explicitly or implicitly affects an individual’s employment, unreasonably interferes with an individual’s work performance, or creates an intimidating, hostile, or offensive work environment.”
And it’s not always a male supervisor verbally harassing a female. Anyone can be a perpetrator or target of verbal sexual harassment, inside and outside of the workplace. Vendors, clients and customers can also contribute to a hostile environment through their verbal conduct.
Does verbal sexual harassment exist at your organization? Here are some examples of verbal conduct that, if left unchecked, can lead to claims of sexual harassment:
- Telling risqué jokes
- Making sexist remarks
- Requesting sexual favors
- Discussing one’s sex life and fantasies
- Making catcalls and lewd noises
- Calling people “honey,” “sweetie” or “baby”
- Repeatedly asking coworkers for a date, when they are clearly not interested
- Telling lies or spreading rumors about a person’s sex life
Other behavior such as frequently staring at someone, making sexual gestures or displaying sexual images at work or on a company device can also lead to charges of sexual harassment.
Organizations that allow (or ignore) offensive jokes, lewd comments and unwelcome sexual discussions are creating a climate of verbal sexual harassment that the EEOC may deem hostile, intimidating and unlawful. An important step in preventing harassment charges is to ensure your anti-harassment training and policies cover how to identify, prevent and report all forms of workplace sexual harassment − verbal, nonverbal, physical and visual.