Sexual Harassment

Sexual harassment refers to unwelcome sexual advances, comments of a sexual nature, requests for sexual favors, and harassment or comments about an individual’s gender, all of which create a hostile work environment. Most commonly, sexual harassment is perpetrated by someone in a position of authority over the victim, such as an employer, supervisor, or teacher.

Sexual harassment is illegal in the U.S., defined and governed by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). Failure to prevent, or to stop, such behavior, may expose the employer to serious civil penalties. To explore this concept, consider the following sexual harassment definition.

Definition of Sexual Harassment


  1. Uninvited and unwanted sexual behavior, whether verbal or physical, especially by an individual in a position of authority over the victim (such as an employer, or a teacher).


Early 1970s       American English

What is Sexual Harassment

The concept of sexual harassment is relatively new, originating in the early 1970s, when the President and Chancellor of MIT addressed a variety of gender issues. Sexual harassment is a serious problem in the U.S. that is addressed by the EEOC. Commonly, sexual harassment is perpetrated by an individual in a position of power or authority, whether by social, political, or educational differences, difference in age, or an employment relationship. Occasionally, an individual looking to receive an advantage, such as a promotion, may engage in sexual harassment, attempting to induce or entice the victim to elevate his or her position.

Common relationships in sexual harassment include:

  • Perpetrator: employer, supervisor, co-worker, client, teacher or professor
  • Victim: male or female, person in an inferior role, may be someone other than the person who is being harassed, such as a witness to sexually harassing behavior
  • Place: workplace, school, university, or other location
  • Gender: both perpetrators and victims may be of either gender, and the perpetrator is not necessarily someone of opposite gender

Sexual Harassment Laws

In the U.S., courts and employers are commonly governed by sexual harassment laws as outlined under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964:

“Unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature constitutes sexual harassment when submission to or rejection of this conduct 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.”

Sexual harassment laws vary by state, though all individuals are guaranteed the right to not be discriminated against on the basis of sex, age, disability, race, color, or religion, by federal law. Sexual harassment falls under these protections.

Types of Sexual Harassment

Sexual harassment comes in many forms, as many acts have the propensity to be offensive to others. There are, however, two primary types of sexual harassment:

  1. Quid Pro Quo – The Latin term quid pro quo translates to “one thing in return for another.” In this case, it refers to the association of an employee’s benefits, such as getting a raise, or not getting fired, to the employee’s acquiescence to the employer’s or supervisor’s unwelcome sexual advances. This does not apply only to employment situations, but any situation in which the harasser has a superior position to the victim.

For example:

Suzanne is struggling in her college chemistry class. Her professor invites her to his office for additional help, where he makes sexual advances, assuring her he intends to give her a good grade. The professor is in a position of authority over Suzanne, having control over her grades. This is sexual harassment, which is an illegal act, and violation of Suzanne’s civil rights.

  1. Hostile Work Environment – This term refers to situations in which an employee is exposed to offensive sexual materials or comments, and/or unwelcome sexual contact or advances. To be considered sexual harassment, the offending behavior generally must be repeated, or part of an ongoing pattern. A hostile work environment may be created by co-workers, a supervisor or employer, or even customers or clients. Employers are responsible for ensuring that sexual harassment does not take place in their workplaces, and to stop any sexual harassment that does take place as soon as they are made aware of it.

For example:

Nancy works as an administrative assistant in a busy auto repair shop. The mechanics tend to use coarse language, and make joking sexual innuendos and advances toward her. In addition, the restroom shared by the employees is adorned with posters of nude women, which is offensive to Nancy. She mentioned these issues to the shop owner, who told her “they’re just joking around,” and “hey, every shop has those, don’t be so sensitive.” Nancy is in a hostile work environment, which is considered a form of sexual harassment.

Of the two types of sexual harassment, the hostile workplace is perhaps the most common, as many people do not even realize that their behavior is a problem. Joking around with sexual innuendo, comments, or teasing a person about his or her gender, or sexual preference, and exposing co-workers or others to sexual pictures, videos, and other materials is sexual harassment.

Addressing Sexual Harassment in the Workplace

While the EEOC has defined sexual harassment in the workplace, actually applying that definition to a specific case or set of circumstances, is sometimes difficult. The laws of each state vary in their protections against sexual harassment in the workplace, some requiring employers to adopt specific policies to prevent and deal with sexual harassment cases, while others only allow victims to sue their employers under the theory of invasion of privacy. Additionally, while federal law addresses discrimination related to sexual harassment, some states have no specific laws prohibiting, or punishing, sexual harassment in the workplace.

Because of these discrepancies, even the courts sometimes disagree on just what constitutes sexual harassment in the workplace.

For example:

Martin flirts shamelessly with Emily, a co-worker in the neighboring cubicle, by making jokes with a sexual theme, whistling catcalls when she walks through the room, and sending her suggestive emails. Emily has rebuffed him many times, telling him she doesn’t appreciate the emails or jokes, and making it clear that she is married, and doesn’t like the sexual advances.

The other employees, and even their supervisor, kid Emily about Martin’s infatuation with her. If Emily’s employer fails to put a stop to Martin’s unwanted attentions, Emily could end up in court. In such a case, it is likely the court would deem Martin’s behavior as sexual harassment, and would probably hold Emily’s employer liable for the hostile workplace in which Emily has been forced to work.

By contrast, if Martin has flirted with Emily, teasing her once or twice with a sexual innuendo before asking her on a date, what a court might decide on the issue of sexual harassment is less clear. Even if Emily is not interested in going out with Martin, and didn’t appreciate his flirtations, this case may not rise to the point of sexual harassment in the judge’s opinion.

What to Do About Sexual Harassment

If an individual is being sexually harassed, it is important to tell the harasser to stop. In addition, there are some things that should be done to make a case against the harasser, should it be necessary to take the problem to a supervisor or the court. All of these suggestions involve obtaining proof of the harassment, effectively creating a paper trail of the crime.

  • Tell the harasser to stop in writing, whether via letter, email, or text. Make reference to the behaviors that are offensive in the communication, and keep a copy. Electronic messages, such as email and texts, mark the date and time, and may be flagged to provide a “read receipt.” Alternatively, the message can be “cc’d” to the sender. Because many people respond to email and text communications impulsively, it is often possible to gain an incriminating response, which amounts to an admission in writing.
  • Keep a log of the harassment. Write down details of each incident, including the date and time. Document exactly what happens, including any offensive language or words used by the harasser, and your response. Write down the names of any witnesses to each incident, and to whom the incident was reported.
  • Report the harassment to a supervisor who is superior to the harasser, and ask that the behaviors be stopped. If the incidents are reported to the supervisor in person, immediately send a follow-up email or memo to document the request in writing.
  • Make a formal complaint with your employer, or union, if such an option is available. If there is no formal complaint process set up, contact the human resources department, or file a complaint with the appropriate governmental agency. Discrimination in the workplace can be reported directly to the EEOC.
  • Keep copies of correspondence sent to, or received from, anyone about the harassment, any reports made, and actions taken. This information could be crucial in a civil lawsuit against the harasser, and/or the employer.

In the event reporting sexual harassment fails to solve the problem, the victim may file a civil lawsuit. In proving a sexual harassment case, both against the harasser, and the employer, all of this information could be vital.

Real Life Sexual Harassment Cases

Although sexual harassment was first dealt with in the 1970s, it didn’t really make it to the public eye until the 1990s, when states began updating their legislation dealing with the issue.

Hostile Work Environment at Mitsubishi Motors Manufacturing of America

In June 1996, the EEOC filed a class action lawsuit on behalf of the female employees of Mitsubishi Motors Manufacturing of America, which was operating in Normal, Illinois. Mitsubishi was accused of a pattern of corporate acceptance of verbal abuse, obscene jokes, fondling, and lewd graffiti targeting female employees. The hostile work environment was so bad that a number of women simply quit their jobs, while others were denied promotions when they refused to grant sexual favors.

Two years later, Mitsubishi reached a settlement agreement with the EEOC, in which the employer agreed to adopt a zero-tolerance policy toward sexual harassment, and to pay $34 million in compensation to the participants of the class action suit, and millions more in settlement of several individual lawsuits. The company immediately hired the former U.S. Secretary of Labor, Lynn Martin, who overhauled the Mitsubishi’s anti-sexual harassment policies and complaint system.

Employee Fired After Reporting Sexual Harassment

In December 2008, 51-year old Carla Ingraham, sales assistant for UBS Financial, complained to the company that her supervisor was sexually harassing her. Ingraham reported that her supervisor habitually made comments about her breast size, asked her about her sexual fantasies, commented about how large his penis was, and called her to his office to show her sexually explicit emails. Ingraham claimed her employer began investigating her after her report, and fired her six months later.

The Kansas City, Missouri jury found merit in Ingraham’s claim, awarding her $350,000 for sexual harassment, $242,000 for retaliation, and $10 million in punitive damages. While the punitive damages award was likely to be limited to $500,000 due to statutory limits on that type of award, the verdict was a bit blow to a large employer to denied the allegations.

Related Legal Terms and Issues

  • Civil Lawsuit – A court having jurisdiction to review decisions of a trial-level or other lower court.
  • Class Action Lawsuit – The legal authority to hear legal cases and make judgments; the geographical region of authority to enforce justice.
  • Damages – A monetary award in compensation for a financial loss, loss of or damage to personal or real property, or an injury.
  • Perpetrator – A person who commits an illegal or criminal act.
  • Punitive Damages – Money awarded to the injured party above and beyond their actual damages. Punitive damages may be awarded in cases where the defendant’s actions in regard to the case are malicious, or so reckless as to give a reasonable person pause. Punitive damages, also referred to as “exemplary damages,” are ordered for the purpose of punishing the wrongdoer for outrageous misconduct in a civil matter.

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