Many sexual harassment claims are filed because a workplace has become a hostile environment. This means that the offensive conduct, based on the sex of the victim, is so severe and pervasive that a reasonable person would see the environment as hostile or abusive. A hostile environment is created by employees (or even non-employees) who, for instance, engage in conversation that is sexually offensive or display sexually explicit pictures. Employers have a legal obligation to make sure that the workplace is not a hostile environment. If your workplace is intolerable, contact an attorney to discuss a possible hostile environment sexual harassment claim.
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Frequently Asked Questions About Sexual Harassment
Q: Can my employer retaliate against me for filing a sexual harassment claim?
A: No. Federal law prohibits retaliation against employees who report unlawful employment practices or who file a claim for workplace discrimination. You are also protected from retaliation for appearing as a witness in another employee's sexual harassment lawsuit.
Q: Is sexual harassment only men harassing women?
A: No matter who is harassing whom, it can be sexual harassment. Sexual harassment is verbal or physical abuse that amounts to discrimination against a person because of his or her sex. If the harassment is between two people of the same sex, the person who is being harassed must show that the harassment was based on his or her sex (not just the sexual desire, if any, of the harasser). The person suffering harassment also must have been treated differently than members of the opposite sex were treated.
Q: Is it sexual harassment if I ask a co-worker for a date?
A: Some employers have responded to sexual harassment claims, or the threat of such claims, by enacting policies against dating or intimate relationships between co-workers. While there is no law that requires such a policy, in most states there is no law that forbids such a policy. If your employer does not have a policy against employees dating one another, it is best if you follow a "one strike and you're out" rule. If you ask a co-worker for a date, and the co-worker lets you know that he or she is not interested, don't ask again. Repeated requests for a date may constitute harassment, while a single, polite request probably will not.
Q: I had an intimate relationship with a co-worker but broke it off. If that co-worker harasses me, can I still bring a claim for sexual harassment?
A: A sexual harassment claim is based on unwelcome conduct. If you have made it clear to your co-worker that you have no further romantic interest in him or her, any ongoing, unwelcome sexual attention that is severe or pervasive could be the basis for a harassment claim. You must proactively make it very clear to your co-worker that the attention is unwelcome. If you do, your prior relationship will not excuse his or her harassment.
Q: If a co-worker or supervisor comments on my clothing or appearance, is that sexual harassment?
A: It depends on the nature of the comment. Telling an employee to dress more professionally is unlikely to be seen as sexual harassment. Frequently suggesting to an employee that she wear more revealing clothes as a way to impress the boss, however, could be seen as sexual harassment. Likewise, an innocuous compliment, such as "that's a nice sweater," would not be harassment; but if it were followed up with a sexual reference ("it really shows off your body"), that type of behavior would be inappropriate. The key is whether the behavior, occurring because of the sex of the employee, creates a hostile or abusive work environment.
Q: I was denied a promotion. I've since learned that the promotion went to my supervisor's boyfriend. Is this sexual harassment?
A: Not necessarily. This is more akin to nepotism than sexual harassment. If the business exists in an environment where sexual favors are required of employees who wish to receive promotions or other favorable treatment from supervisors, however, this could be viewed as sexual harassment. But when a supervisor promotes his or her romantic partner in an isolated incident, that is usually not actionable under sexual harassment law.
Q: A fellow employee spends a lot of time downloading pornography from the Internet to his work computer. Is this sexual harassment?
A: It depends. Is this employee's computer screen visible to anyone who passes? Does he draw others' attention to what he has downloaded? Does he continue to download pornography after he has been told that others find it offensive? If so, this could be sexual harassment — just because the activity is not directed at you does not mean that you cannot be affected.
Q: The other day, a fellow employee told me a joke that had mild sexual content. I wasn't offended by it, and we both found the joke to be funny. Today, we both got a memo from our boss saying our conduct was inappropriate and a potential violation of the company's sexual harassment policy. Was the joke harassment?
A: While one joke alone may not be harassment, it could be part of a hostile environment. In this situation, you need to remember that the question is not whether you or the employee who told the joke was offended, but whether a "reasonable person" would find it offensive. The other point to remember is that someone must have found the joke offensive enough to report it, causing the boss to send the memo. This should be a warning that not everyone you work with shares your opinion as to what is or is not offensive. Take it as a sign that you need to be more careful with what you say at work.
Q: A regular customer of my employer makes offensive sexual remarks every time I see him. Is this sexual harassment?
A: It could be sexual harassment. You should report the problem and give your employer a chance to fix it (for example, making sure you don't have to deal with this customer or discussing the issue of propriety with the customer). It will be considered harassment if your employer knew about it and did nothing to correct the problem.
Q: Is sexual harassment ever a criminal matter?
A: The harasser's actions may be a crime, depending on the state in which they occurred. If the sexual harassment consisted of a physical attack, criminal sexual conduct, stalking, threats or another crime, the harasser may face criminal penalties.
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