Recently, a number of powerful men have been forced out of positions in entertainment, government, journalism and other fields due to credible allegations of sexual harassment or misconduct. These ousters have typically been the result of public pressure, not litigation, but they have raised important workplace issues for everyone to consider.
Many men are wondering if it’s ever OK to compliment a colleague’s appearance or ask one out on a date. What about a congratulatory hug? A pat on the shoulder? Will any unwanted touch or misguided statement get you fired these days?
A lot of women are equally confused. “They understand sexual harassment is not allowed, and that it’s wrong,” says a psychology professor from Penn State, “but no one has taught them what that is.” If a co-worker makes a sexualized comment or stands too close, should a woman report that co-worker to HR?
Let’s take a look at some basic guidance from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). “The law doesn’t prohibit simple teasing, offhand comments or isolated incidents that are not very serious,” the agency’s website reads. “Harassment is illegal when it is so frequent or severe that it creates a hostile or offensive work environment or when it results in an adverse employment decision” against the victim.
It also doesn’t matter if the harasser is a supervisor, a co-worker or even a customer — it’s the company’s legal responsibility to take reasonable steps to address any harassment. Also, sexual harassment doesn’t have to be explicitly sexual; it also includes gender-based harassment.
Discussions about sexual harassment may be helpful or problematic
As society watches celebrities and politicians stepping aside due to their sexual misconduct, it’s becoming more common for issues of sexual harassment to be openly discussed in the workplace.
Overall, that’s probably a positive development. It’s important for everyone to be on the same page about what kinds of behavior are acceptable in the workplace.
On the other hand, sexual harassment is a hot button issue and the discussion itself can be problematic if it becomes too heated. When people have inaccurate notions or strong opinions about sexual harassment and misconduct, their statements may be perceived as unduly aggressive or even harassing in turn.
Ultimately, the goal is to promote a safe, harassment-free workplace for everyone. Even when you’re only discussing sexual harassment, it’s important to be thoughtful about what you say. Be respectful.
If you’re experiencing sexual or gender harassment at your workplace, it’s a good idea to have an employment law attorney evaluate your situation before you take any action. Your attorney can help you gather evidence appropriately and prepare you to take the first step toward resolving the situation while limiting the risk of retaliation.