What Is And Is Not Sexual Harassment at Work?

If you feel you are being harassed at work, it can be difficult to tell whether you are experiencing illegal harassment as defined by law, or if you feel hurt or offended by behaviour that may be wrong, but is not illegal. The lines that cross from uncomfortable to illegal can be hard to see, but could mean the difference between a successful claim and one that can’t even be filed.

Laws Against Discrimination

All harassment cases are tried under the laws governing discrimination in the workplace, which encompass all forms of harassment from sexual harassment and hostile work environment harassment to discrimination harassment cases.

The common underlying factor in all successful harassment cases is that the plaintiff was able to prove that the harassment was repetitive or relentless in nature and interfered with the victim’s ability to perform his or her job.

Quid Pro Quo Sexual Harassment

A Quid Pro Quo sexual harassment case is one in which a supervisor, boss or co-worker offers a perk or promotion in exchange for sexual favours. An on-the-job benefit for sexual acts performed. The other form of Quid Pro Quo sexual harassment is when a negative employment action is threatened if the victim does not perform certain sexual acts. The trade is getting to keep one’s job in exchange for sexual favours.

Quid Pro Quo harassment can be overt when it comes in the form of explicit threats or promises, but the grey area exists in the cases where the threats or promises were implied and understood, but not spelled out.

Hostile Work Environment Sexual Harassment

The other form of sexual harassment is Hostile Work Environment sexual harassment. These cases are where an employee is made to feel demeaned, degraded, or threatened by a pattern of repeated, relentless behavior in the workplace.

The harassment could be in the form of verbal commentary, putting down one based on their gender. It could be lewd remarks about someone’s physical appearance, especially with focus on certain parts of their anatomy. It could also involve physical touching in the form of needless brushing up against someone in the workplace, or an inordinate amount of hugs, shoulder rubs or pats on the back. Harassment can also take the form of visual images that are displayed. Either sexually explicit or sexually suggestive photographs, screen savers, calendars and other displays can build a hostile workplace atmosphere, making employees feel uncomfortable.

Again, it can be difficult to tell what is and what is not sexual harassment because some single actions may not be as overt as others, but if they are pervasive and repetitive, it could build a bigger picture of a pattern of harassing behaviours.

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Let’s explore the differences between examples of harassing behaviour to illustrate what is and is not sexual harassment.

Example 1:

A shift supervisor has been leering at you during afternoon shifts, making sexually suggestive comments about the way you look in your uniform. You ignore all advances and requests for dates, making him angry. The following week, the shift schedule has changed and you are working the late-night shifts when normally you had afternoons, making it possible to care for your children. When you bring up your dissatisfaction about the shifts, your supervisor replies that, “You should’ve given me what I wanted. Then I would’ve given you what you wanted.”

This IS Quid Pro Quo Sexual Harassment. The supervisor punished you for not complying with his sexual requests for dates and other acts.

Example 2:

When a co-worker was newly hired, she asked you out for coffee after work. You went once to be friendly, but quickly saw that she was interested in you as more than a friend, so you have declined all invitations since. Now, months later, she sees you in the break room and compliments your new sport jacket, asking if you’ve lost weight. You think she may be hitting on you again, and are unsure if you are being harassed.

This is NOT Sexual Harassment. Although you are feeling a bit uncomfortable, your co-worker has not threatened you or made sexually-charged remarks. Yes, she commented on your appearance, but in a way that could be taken as friendly and complimentary. Keep in mind, however, that if these encounters become so frequent and repetitive to the point where you are uncomfortable walking around the office, it could escalate to a hostile work environment sexual harassment case.

We hope this article has been useful in explaining what is and is not sexual harassment at work. However, if you ever feel harassed, make sure to take the appropriate steps while remaining calm and professional at all times.

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