What Kinds of Behaviors Are Considered Sexual Harassment?

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Behaviors considered to be sexual abuse and harassment.Most people are aware that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits sexual harassment in the workplace. But in today’s society, there is some confusion about what types of behavior actually constitute sexual abuse and harassment. Obviously, offensive behavior like offering someone a promotion in exchange for sex is easy enough to pinpoint. But what about more subtle actions? As awareness of this problem in the workplace increases, people are more willing to come forward and report inappropriate behavior. And as the willingness to report grows, offenders are getting smarter about how they interact with their victims.

In other words, a boss who is prone to harassing his female employees is likely aware that if they are too obvious about it, their victim may report them. So they switch gears and downshift into less obvious behavior that leaves the victim uncertain as to whether or not illegal harassment even happened. If you wonder if the uncomfortable behavior you are experiencing at work is considered harassment, the discussion below may shed some light on the topic for you.

Two Basic Types of Sexual Harassment Behaviors

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) defines sexual harassment as requests for sexual favors, uninvited and unwelcome sexually oriented advances, or any unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature within the workplace. There are two broad categories within which illegal sexual harassment behaviors fall.

Quid Pro Quo

This type of harassment is obvious. When an employer, boss, or supervisor requests a date or sexual favors in exchange for any tangible job activity, this is quid pro quo sexual harassment. If anyone with an authoritative or superior position within your company promises a promotion if you have sexual relations with them, this is sexual harassment. Or if they threaten to fire or demote you if you don’t date them, that qualifies as well.

Hostile Work Environment

This type of harassment can be far less obvious than quid pro quo. Whenever an employer or coworker subjects any employee to severe and pervasive unwelcome sexual conduct, it creates an abusive work environment. Usually, this involves a persistent pattern of behavior that cumulatively results in a toxic work environment over time. Since this type of harassment is more difficult to identify, we will focus on it for the remainder of this discussion.

Physical Harassment

Physical behaviors are easy to spot, but perpetrators can attempt to make them seem somewhat innocent and hard to pinpoint. Obvious physical sexual harassment behaviors include unwelcome kissing, butt slapping, touching of the breasts or genital area, or even attempts to force sexual conduct up to and including rape.

But what about the supervisor who routinely stops to linger over your desk and massage your shoulders? Or whisper into your ear on a regular basis? If these actions are unwelcome and make you uncomfortable, they can constitute sexual harassment. Repeatedly touching, pinching, cornering you, or lingering too closely to your body can all constitute sexual harassment. Whereas more innocuous touching like high-fives, handshakes, or an occasional light touch on the arm or shoulder probably do not comprise harassment.

Verbal Harassment

Actions do not have to be physical to constitute sexual harassment. These types of verbal behaviors qualify as well:

  • Calling an adult a girl, boy, hunk, babe, honey, stud, sugar, or any unprofessional (and often derogatory) pet name;
  • Making repeated comments on someone’s appearance, clothes, hair, or physique;
  • Sexual innuendos;
  • Asking about sexual preferences, history, fantasies, and the like;
  • Repeatedly requesting or pressuring someone for dates;
  • Telling sexually oriented jokes and stories;
  • Veering discussions to the topic of sex;
  • Disseminating rumors about someone’s sex life or preferences; and
  • Making any sexually charged noises like whistling, kissing sounds, smacking lips, or howling.

Basically, any sexually charged repetitive verbal behavior can be sexual harassment.

Non-Verbal Harassment

Non-verbal actions that are sexual in nature can easily cross the line of appropriate professional behavior. Such actions include:

  • Staring at someone or repeated lingering glances;
  • Looking a person “up and down” in a suggestive manner;
  • Following someone around the office or workplace;
  • Blocking someone from moving freely through the workplace;
  • Licking your lips while gazing at someone;
  • Winking in a suggestive manner;
  • Blowing kisses;
  • Giving intimate, inappropriate gifts, or repeated gifts for no apparent reason;
  • Making suggestive gestures;
  • Showing someone sexually suggestive or explicit visual images; and
  • Leaving inappropriate and suggestive notes.

Generally, any non-verbal communication that is sexually charged and makes the recipient uncomfortable constitutes non-verbal sexual harassment behaviors.

Digital Sexual Harassment

In this digital age, people use the internet, email, text messages, and social media at work and home as a central form of communication. More and more, workplaces rely on electronic modes of communication on a daily basis. Electronic conveyances can contain inappropriate and offensive material that is prohibited in the workplace just as easily—or even more so—than other more traditional communication methods.

For example, email and texting give us the ability to send links to one another. This means that a perpetrator of sexual harassment can now send someone links to sexually charged material any time of the day or night. They don’t even have to be at work or in the victim’s presence to harass employees or coworkers. Or worse, they can send their targets nude photos, sexually coarse jokes, sexual stories, or even pornographic material whenever the mood strikes. All of these forms of digital communications are sexual harassment if the recipient does not welcome them.

Let Us Help

The professionals at the Smithey Law Group are passionate about protecting your rights in the workplace. If you feel uncomfortable with someone’s behavior at work and are uncertain if it constitutes sexual abuse and harassment, you can make an appointment to discuss it with one of our knowledgeable attorneys. They can assess the facts and circumstances you are confronted with at work and advise you on whether sexual abuse and harassment are occurring and what to do about it next. Likewise, if you are an employer who is not sure about actions happening in your company, we welcome a chance to clarify your legal rights and responsibilities. Call us at 410-919-2990 or contact us online today to set up a meeting where we can discuss your options.

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Joyce Smithey, a seasoned employment and labor law attorney, has over 22 years of experience representing both employers and employees in Maryland and D.C. Her practice, rooted in a deep understanding of employment law, spans administrative hearings to federal litigation. Joyce's approach is comprehensive, focusing on protecting client interests while ensuring legal compliance. A Harvard graduate, her career began in Fortune 500 companies, transitioning to law after a degree from Boston University School of Law. Joyce's expertise is recognized by numerous awards, including Maryland’s Top 100 Women. At Smithey Law Group LLC, which she founded in 2018, Joyce continues to champion employment rights, drawing on her rich background in law and business.

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