By: Joshua C. Black, Esq.
Just days ago, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo resigned from his high-profile position after being accused by nearly a dozen women of sexual harassment in the workplace. This is just the most recent sexual harassment scandal and example of a person in a position of power misusing their status to inflict harm on subordinates.
Sexual harassment at work
According to a poll conducted by CNBC, roughly one-fifth of working Americans have experienced sexual harassment on the job.
Sexual harassment in the workplace can come in many forms. From overt actions like unwanted sexual advances and unsolicited physical touching or groping, to more subtle occurrences like inappropriate jokes, unwanted compliments that are sexual in nature, or explicit emails or texts.
While most people assume sexual harassment at work is perpetrated by a supervisor, an employee can be sexually harassed by a peer or even a subordinate, though this is less common. Supervisors have significant power to alter the work environment, making this more a more impactful and recognizable form of abuse.
Types of sexual harassment
There are two distinct types of sexual misconduct at work that can rise to the level of sexual harassment. An employee may have a claim if they are subject to either "quid pro quo" demands or a "hostile work environment."
Quid pro quo sexual harassment occurs when a supervisor requires an employee to trade sex, sexual favors, or sexual contact for advancements at work or as a condition of their employment. Only supervisors who have the authority to take tangible employment actions like hiring, firing or promoting, can commit quid pro quo harassment.
Hostile work environment sexual harassment occurs when the offender creates a sexually hostile or offensive environment. A hostile environment can result from the unwelcome conduct of supervisors, co-workers or anyone else with whom the victim interacts with on the job, and the unwelcome conduct renders the workplace atmosphere intimidating, hostile or offensive.
An example would be a male co-worker’s general attitude of disrespect toward female employees, and his continuous sexual objectification of them. In order to be considered sexual harassment, this type of disrespect and objectification would need to be severe and pervasive in a way that it would interfere with a reasonable person's ability to do their job.
To prove a sexual harassment claim, a plaintiff must demonstrate:
· That the conduct in question was sexual in nature
· That the actions were unwelcome
· That the behavior was sufficient or pervasive enough to alter the conditions of the plaintiff’s employment
How to handle sexual harassment at work
If an employee experiences unwanted advances from a boss, supervisor or co-worker, they should make it clear, in a respectful manner, that the advances are not welcomed. If these advances persist, a worker should reach out to the Human Resources department and report the situation. If a company fails to address the issue, an employee should follow up with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and a qualified employment attorney to rectify the situation.
As a rule of thumb, employees should document communications with HR in detail. If the communications are verbal, the employee should follow up with an email confirming details of the conversation. The employee who is being mistreated should also consider what other sources of evidence may exist such as witnesses, video of an incident on company property, explicit text messages, emails, or other messages from the harasser. The employee should make every effort to preserve any evidence of the abuse.
If you feel you have been mistreated at work or have questions about sexual harassment in your place of business, contact the Law Office of Joshua Black, PLC, at (623) 738-2225.