Understanding sexual harassment in the workplace

Workplace sexual harassment is against both federal and Kentucky state laws.

According to the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), sexual harassment is defined as:

  • Unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature ... that affects an individual's employment, unreasonably interferes with an individual's work performance, or creates an intimidating, hostile, or offensive work environment.

There are many different types of behaviors, actions and activities that can constitute sexual harassment, but there are two broad categories: quid pro quo and hostile work environment.

Quid pro quo

Quid pro quo harassment is a type that promises one action in exchange for another. An example of this would be assuring an employee that she won't lose her job if she agrees to date a supervisor. The conduct does not need to come from a person of the opposite sex, but does need to be of a sexual nature in order to constitute harassment. A single flagrant instance of quid pro quo harassment could be enough to bring a sexual harassment claim depending on the circumstances.

Hostile work environment

Hostile work environment discrimination is trickier to prove. It involves both a subjective standard and an objective one, both of which must be met to bring a successful claim. The subjective standard is from the perspective of the victim, and involves proving that he or she individually believed that the conduct in question was hostile, abusive, or offensive. The objective component involves the perspective of a reasonable person in the victim's stead. Would a reasonable person have thought that the conduct in question rose to the level of being abusive, hostile, or offensive?

Courts can analyze a number of factors to determine if an alleged harasser's actions made for a hostile work environment. These include, but are not limited to:

  • The frequency of the conduct
  • Whether the conduct was physical, verbal, non-verbal or some combination thereof
  • Whether the harasser was a co-worker or a supervisor
  • If the conduct was patently offensive or hostile in nature
  • Whether there were other victims
  • If others (co-workers, other supervisors, managers, etc.) joined in the harassment or were aware of it without intervening

Types of conduct

Any number of types of behaviors, acts, conduct and statements can possibly give rise to a sexual harassment claim, including:

  • Unwanted physical touching like stroking, rubbing, hugging or kissing
  • Comments about a person's body, relationships or clothing
  • Sexual-based or bawdy jokes, comments, illustrations/pictures or emails
  • Requests for dates or sexual favors
  • Impeding or blocking the victim's physical movement away from the harasser
  • Staring at the victim's body in a lewd manner
  • Following the victim, either in the workplace or outside of it

As you can see, given the wide range of possibly harassing acts and actions, it may be difficult to prove which of them constituted a pattern of harassing behavior. If you suspect you are the victim of workplace harassment, speak up. Try your best to make the harassment stop by reporting the aggressor to your supervisor, manager or human resources department. If that doesn't address the issue, make a complaint with a local branch of the Kentucky state EEOC office and consider seeking the legal advice of an experienced employment law attorney like those at the office of Landrum & Shouse, LLP.