Respectful workplaces tend to foster productive, creative employees who share an awareness and appreciation of each other. On the contrary, workplaces lacking in respect tend to have high levels of turnover, conflict, low morale, poor attendance, and low productivity.

Workplace sexual harassment and discrimination contribute significantly to a workplace lacking in respect and unwanted advances, requests for sexual favors and undesirable verbal or physical conduct all constitute sexual harassment when the behaviors impact an individual’s work performance or create a hostile or intimidating work environment.

Wondering how do you identify sexual harassment in the workplace? Here is a quick guide to help you navigate this space.

In the US, sexual harassment is a form of sex discrimination that violates the federal law known as Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The harasser may be someone of the opposite or same sex and may be – a manager, supervisor, co-worker or non-employee (e.g. contractor, customer) – and the target of the harassment may be of any gender.

There are two basic forms of sexual harassment: quid pro quo and hostile work environment.

Quid pro quo: Latin for “this for that,” is harassment that occurs when power is used to obtain sexual favors from an employee in ‘exchange’ for some kind of benefit, such as a promotion. If the victim does not comply, a punishment may result.

Hostile work environment: This type of harassment occurs when unwelcome sexual advances are sufficiently pervasive as to interfere with an employee’s work performance or create an intimidating, hostile, or offensive work environment for the employee or for others.

Sexual harassment behavior comes in several forms, so it is important to understand what may or may not be considered sexual harassment.

Behavior that may be considered sexual harassment includes:

  • Using one’s position at work to gain sexual favors (either directly or implied)
  • Threatening, bullying, teasing (e.g. with regards to what someone is wearing)
  • Using derogatory words or stereotypes (e.g. saying “she’s hot” may be considered sexual harassment even if it is not directly at an employee)
  • Roaming eyes: e.g. if an employee or manager is known to stare down a female co-worker’s blouse instead of looking them in the eye
  • Making unwanted sexual or romantic advances at any time: e.g. unwanted contact under the table or “social kissing” at work parties
  • Posting suggestive pictures online
  • Telling or circulating inappropriate jokes
  • Appearing to stare or spy on someone

In light of the #MeToo movement, it is vital for organizations to find more effective ways of dealing with these issues and avoiding the reputational damage caused by larger-scale backlash (such as the mass walkouts at Google as one example). Aside from that, the liabilities for an organization include significant financial penalties from watchdogs and large legal expenses.

Litigation of harassment claims tends to be more expensive. One estimate of settlement
payments and court judgments solely in 2012 for harassment lawsuits clocked in at over $356 million, according to EEOC. While the largest sexual harassment jury award in recent history totaled $168 million.

In fiscal year 2015, EEOC filed 33 lawsuits containing a harassment allegation. During the same time, it resolved 42 lawsuits involving harassment, recovering over $39 million in monetary benefits for employees. At the ‘lower’ end, Walmart recently paid $100K to resolve a federal disability discrimination lawsuit. In addition to the monetary relief, the settlement will provide important equitable relief to provide deaf and hard-of-hearing employees and applicants with effective accommodations so they can participate in workplace communications and have equal employment opportunities.

Simply put, the direct financial costs of workplace harassment are significant. But by no means are financial costs the only repercussions. So vigilance and an increased understanding of what constitutes sexual harassment is therefore key in prevention and in dealing with cases as they arise.

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*The information in this article does not constitute legal advice and should not replace a consultation with a lawyer with expertise in your country/state