Sexual harassment in the workplace is a serious problem, and while employees know it exists, many are unsure what to do when they are victims. According to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, sexual harassment is defined as “unsolicited sexual advances, requests for sexual favors and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature when submission or refusal of such conduct expressly or implicitly unreasonably interferes with a person’s employment interferes with a person’s job performance or creates an intimidating, hostile, or offensive work environment.” Title VII of the Civil Rights Act is the primary federal statute prohibiting sexual harassment. In addition, each state has its own sexual harassment statute.
Greg Noble, an employment attorney, explains: “sexual harassment in the workplace really goes beyond your boss being mean to you. It has to involve some form of sexual behavior.” This can take the form of a work environment that becomes hostile due to inappropriate sexual comments, insults, or touching. Sexual photographs, demeaning jokes, or threats with sexual overtones can also create a hostile work environment.
The second type of sexual harassment is known in return. According to Greg Noble, an employment attorney, this occurs when “your boss ties a benefit of employment to something sexual, like a date, sex, or something like that.” Reciprocal sexual harassment can also occur when someone in a position of authority asks for a sexual favor in exchange for the employee not being fired or otherwise punished, or in exchange for a favor such as a raise or promotion.
It’s important to realize that if you’re the victim of any type of workplace harassment, you can’t just quit your job. New Jersey employment attorney Kevin Costello explains, “Unfortunately, just resigning isn’t that easy. For us to be able to bring legal remedies for you in court and say that you were forced to resign because of the harassment, it has to be pretty bad. The standard is “behavior so extreme and outrageous that no sane person could be expected to continue to put up with it”… If the harassment is that bad, you have a right to leave [and] you have a right to move around to record lost wages and other lost benefits.” Exactly what constitutes “extreme and rude conduct” will vary from case to case, judge to judge, and court to court.
Although you can only quit your job if the sexual harassment is serious, your employer has an obligation to address the harassment issue and take steps to resolve the issue. “It is important that people understand that employers have a legal obligation not only to prevent unlawful sexual harassment but also, if there is a legitimate complaint about it, to fully investigate it and take remedial action. If employers don’t do this, they are subject to all kinds of penalties,” explains employment attorney Steve Cahn.
Find out about both federal and state sexual harassment laws to protect yourself from becoming a victim of sexual harassment. Knowing your rights lets you know when they’re being violated and empowers you to defend yourself. If you are being sexually harassed at work, it is advisable to inform the harasser directly that the behavior is undesirable and must stop. In addition, you should use any available employer grievance mechanisms or grievance systems. Finally, it is advisable to speak to an employment lawyer about the situation as soon as possible to ensure your rights are protected and the proper legal process to deal with the harassment is followed.
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