Sexual harassment on the job took a dramatic leap into public awareness in October 1991, when Professor Anita Hill's charges against Judge Clarence Thomas became known after his nomination to the U.S. Supreme Court. Other incidents have erupted since then, including investigations into the Navy after the Tailhook incident and into government officials after Senator Bob Packwood was accused of harassing several female staffers.
Enforcement of the laws prohibiting sexual harassment has been stepped up in the last few years. But in workplaces across America, the issue is far from settled. Sexual harassment is still a daily problem for many workers, especially women.
1. What is sexual harassment?
In legal terms, sexual harassment is any unwelcome sexual advance or conduct on the job that creates an intimidating, hostile or offensive working environment. In real life, sexually harassing behavior ranges from repeated offensive or belittling jokes to outright sexual assault.
2. Are there laws that protect against sexual harassment on the job?
Yes. But surprisingly, those laws are fairly new. In fact, prior to the 1980s, there were no federal or state laws prohibiting sexual harassment on the job and few instances in which it was prevented or punished.
The history is interesting even to those who aren't history buffs. In 1980, the Equal Employment Opportunities Commission (EEOC) issued regulations defining sexual harassment and stating it was a form of sexual discrimination prohibited by the Civil Rights Act, which had been originally passed in 1964. In 1986, the U.S. Supreme Court first ruled that sexual harassment was a form of job discrimination - and held it to be illegal.
Today, there is greater understanding that the Civil Rights Act prohibits sexual harassment at work. In addition, most states have their own fair employment practices laws that prohibit harassment - many of them more strict than the federal law. To find out the law in your state, call (800) 669-3362 and ask for the EEOC office nearest you.
3. Are men ever sexually harassed? Can workers harass co-workers of the same gender?
The laws prohibiting sexual harassment on the job protect all workers. Men can - and do - sexually harass other men. Women can - and do - sexually harass men and sometimes other women.
But in the overwhelming majority of cases of sexual harassment, it's a male co-worker or supervisor who is harassing a female worker. No one is sure why this is so. Socialization probably plays a part: men are more likely than women to find sexual advances flattering, women more likely to be perceived as the gatekeepers of conduct. Economics enter, too. There are simply more women in the workforce than ever before - and at least some male workers feel the influx as a threat to their own livelihoods. Finally, sexual harassment is a power ploy, a way to keep some workers in lower-paid, less respected positions - or force them out of the workplace altogether.
4. Some workers, particularly men, are now worried that anything they say or do at work may be misinterpreted as sexual harassment. Any guidance?
The super-cautious advice - don't say anything to co-workers at work except name, rank and serial number - is surely overkill. The better approach is to use common sense. There is plenty of room to be friendly and personable without behaving in a way that is likely to offend workers of either gender.
Some rough guides for evaluating your own workplace behavior:
- Would you say or do it in front of your spouse or parents?
- Would you say or do it in front of a colleague of the same gender?
- How would you feel if your mother, wife, sister or daughter were subjected to the same words or behavior?
- How would you feel if another man said or did the same things to you?
- Does it need to be said or done at all?
If you are truly concerned that your words or conduct may be offensive to a co-worker, there is one surefire way to find out: ask.
5. I feel that I'm being sexually harassed at work. What should I do?
Keep in mind that sexual harassment is unwanted behavior. Tell the harasser to stop. Surprisingly often - some experts say up to 90% of the time - this works.
When confronted directly, harassment is especially likely to end if it is at a fairly low level: off-color jokes, inappropriate comments about your appearance, repeated requests for dates, tacky cartoons tacked onto the office refrigerator.
Saying "no" in a tangible way does more than assert your determination to stop the behavior. It is also a crucial first step if you later decide to take more formal action against the harasser, whether through your company's complaint procedure or through the legal system. And give serious thought to documenting what's going on; your case will be stronger if you can later prove that the harassment continued after you confronted the harasser.
6. But confronting a harasser sounds scary. What's the best way to do it?
If possible, deal directly with the harassment when it occurs. But if your harasser surprises you with an obnoxious gesture or comment that catches you completely off-guard - a common tactic - you may be too flabbergasted to respond at once. Or if you did respond, you may not have expressed yourself clearly. Either way, talk to him or her the next day.
Keep the conversation brief. Try to speak to your harasser privately-- out of the hearing range of supervisors and co-workers. Do not smile, touch your harasser or give any other mixed messages when you speak. And this is not a good time to use humor to make your point. Finally, it is usually better to make a direct request that a specific kind of behavior stop, rather than to describe to your harasser how you feel.
If your harasser persists, write a letter, spelling out what behavior you object to and why. Also, specify what you want to happen next. If you feel the situation is serious or bound to escalate, let him or her know that you will take action against the harassment if it doesn't stop at once. If your company has a written policy against harassment, you may want to attach a copy of it to your letter.
7. What if the harassment doesn't stop even after I've confronted the harasser?
It is impossible to offer foolproof advice on how to respond to every situation involving serious sexual harassment. But it's usually best to get official help either from your employer or a state or federal agency. Prepare to do this by collecting as much detailed evidence as possible about the specifics of your harassment.
Be sure to save any offensive letters, photographs, cards or notes you receive. And if you were made to feel uncomfortable because of jokes, pin-ups or cartoons posted at work, confiscate them - or at least make copies. An anonymous, obnoxious photo or joke posted on a bulletin board is not anyone else's personal property, so you are free to take it down and keep it as evidence. If that's not possible, photograph the workplace walls. Note the dates the offensive material was posted - and whether there were hostile reactions when you took it down or asked another person to do so.
Also, keep a detailed journal. Write down the specifics of everything that feels like harassment. Include the names of everyone involved, what happened, where and when it took place. If anyone else saw or heard the harassment, note that as well. Be as specific as possible about what was said and done - and how it affected you, your health or job performance.
If your employer has conducted periodic evaluations of your work, make sure you have copies. In fact, you may want to ask for a copy of your entire personnel file - before you tip your hand that you are considering taking action against a harassing co-worker. Your records will be particularly persuasive evidence if your evaluations have been good and your employer later retaliates by trying to transfer or fire you, claiming poor job performance.
8. If the harassment still doesn't stop, what are my options short of filing a lawsuit or a complaint with a government agency?
If you have already sent your harasser a letter demanding that the behavior stop, you may want to take more forceful action. Consider giving a copy of your letter to his or her supervisor - along with a memo explaining that the behavior has become more outrageous.
If the harassment still does not abate, send the letter to the next- ranked worker or official at your workplace. Include a cover letter in which you offer your own remedy for the situation - something realistic that might help end the discomfort, such as transferring the harasser to a more distant worksite. If it's your own supervisor who has been harassing you, consider asking to be assigned a different supervisor.
These days, most workplaces have specific written policies prohibiting sexual harassment. If you have followed the steps that seem reasonable to you but the harassment continues, your next option is to pursue any procedure your company has established for handling harassment.
9. What legal steps can I take to end the harassment?
If all investigation and settlement attempts fail to produce satisfactory results, your next step may be to file a lawsuit for damages under the federal Civil Rights Act or under a state fair employment practices statute.
Even if you intend right from the beginning to file such a lawsuit, you sometimes must first file a claim with a government agency. For example, an employee pursuing a claim under the Civil Rights Act must first file a claim with the EEOC, and a similar procedure is required under some state laws. The EEOC or state agency may decide to prosecute your case on its own, but that happens only occasionally.
More commonly, at some point, the agency will issue you a document referred to as a "right-to-sue" letter that allows you to take your case to court. When filing an action for sexual harassment, you will almost always need to hire a lawyer for help.
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