May 28, 2019

Sexual harassment prevention in the workplace

One of the essential components of a respectful, harassment-free workplace is the ability of employees to recognize appropriate and inappropriate behavior and know when conduct crosses the line into sexual harassment. Too often workplace harassment goes unreported, usually because the employees fear retaliation or they’re uncertain about what is and isn’t considered harassment. Sexual harassment training provides an opportunity to raise awareness of the different forms of sexual harassment and educate employees on the positive steps they can take to address and report harassment and prevent future incidents.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) says effective harassment training should include, among other things, “descriptions of prohibited harassment, as well as conduct that if left unchecked, might rise to the level of prohibited harassment.” New and expanded sexual harassment training requirements for employers in New York and California also mandate that training programs include an explanation of sexual harassment and provide examples of conduct that would constitute harassment.

What is the definition of sexual harassment?

Sexual harassment is a form of sex discrimination, which violates Title VII of the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964. The EEOC, which enforces Title VII, defines sexual harassment as unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature that directly or indirectly interferes with an individual’s work, creates a hostile work environment or is made a term or condition of employment. Sexual harassment doesn’t have to be of a sexual nature, however. Offensive comments about a person’s sex or about women in general can also constitute illegal harassment.  

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While the single offensive comment or isolated incident (unless it’s extremely serious) doesn’t cross the line into unlawful conduct, employees and managers should be aware of behavior that is clearly inappropriate in the workplace, such as:

  • Making crude jokes
  • Making vulgar, insulting and derogatory comments about women
  • Asking for sexual favors
  • Making catcalls and other lewd sounds
  • Staring at someone or making sexual gestures
  • Calling co-workers (or customers, vendors, etc.) “honey,” “sweetie,”  “baby”
  • Asking for a date repeatedly when the answer is “no”
  • Spreading rumors and lies about a co-worker’s sex life
  • Displaying sexually explicit images
  • Touching, grabbing and other unwanted physical contact
  • Discussing sexual encounters and fantasies

Who can be a harasser?
Anyone can be a harasser or target of harassment, regardless of their sex, gender or position. This includes supervisors, co-workers, colleagues, customers, vendors or others who employees interact with. And the EEOC says an individual does not need to be the target of harassment to be affected by offensive workplace conduct. In other words, workplace cultures that allow “bad behavior” can lead to sexual harassment claims.  

Here are some recent examples of behaviors that resulted in EEOC sexual harassment lawsuits and settlements:

  • The EEOC is suing a NYC restaurant chain, alleging a district manager verbally and physically abused female employees. The district manager’s conduct included touching female employees’ breasts and backsides, hugging and picking them up and massaging their shoulders, among other unwanted physical contact. The EEOC said the district manager told one employee that she would make a good stripper and that he’d like to sleep with her mother. He also talked about wanting the female employees to lose weight or wear tighter clothing, and discussed his and their sex lives.
  • In another lawsuit, the agency is alleging that the owner of two resorts sexually harassed female employees by repeated attempts to get them alone to subject them to lewd sexual comments and propositions, inappropriate touching and groping.
  • This case alleges that an executive chef, who is also the co-owner of a restaurant, subjected female employees to sexual harassment by routinely making offensive and inappropriate sexual comments. This includes asking them out on dates, telling them that he loved them and wanted them, and asking one of them whether she needed help in the bathroom.
  • A general contractor agreed to pay two former female employees $70,000 and provide other relief to settle a sexual harassment lawsuit that alleged a supervisor at a worksite demanded sexual favors from two non-English speaking Hispanic female employees and watched pornographic videos in front of them. The EEOC also charged that the supervisor sexually assaulted one of the employees and subsequently taunted her, asking whether she “liked it.” The EEOC said the supervisor then threatened to fire both the female employees and their husbands, who were also employees, if they reported his harassment. When one of the female employees refused the supervisor’s sexual advances, he terminated her.

Traliant Insight
Raising awareness is an important step in preventing sexual harassment in the workplace. As part of a holistic approach to preventing workplace harassment, training can serve as both a strategic and practical tool to increase awareness and provide employees with a deeper understanding of the different forms of sexual harassment and what they can do to prevent future incidents.