What Is It, How to Avoid It, and How the Courts Regard It
Sexual harassment has exploded into the public consciousness in a very short amount of time, especially as many celebrities have joined the lists of accused and accusers alike. But these types of situations are not new. Despite the recent nature of the public outcry, sexual harassment has posed a potential threat whenever one worker has held power over another. If a business does not understand or recognize the concepts and definitions of sexual harassment, it could easily find itself embroiled in a major issue without even knowing what the alleged perpetrators did wrong. This post will examine the basics of sexual harassment, how your business can steer clear of it, and when you might need the services of legal counsel.
Workplaces provide ready environments for sexual harassment. Employers and employee-supervisors may attempt to leverage the security of their position to abuse their power over lower-ranking employees. Both federal laws and state laws govern claims of sexual harassment in Arizona. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 generally governs the issue on a federal level, while generally the Arizona Civil Rights Act covers much of the same ground on the state level. According to these laws, sexual harassment may be defined as any sexually-oriented behavior by one person that the other person doesn’t want, including:
- Inappropriate touching
- Visual harassment tactics such as exposing oneself
- Requests or demands for sexual contact
- Unsolicited sexual discussion
- Bullying, threats, or bribes to obtain sexual acts
Sexual harassment is not limited strictly to employer-employee relationships. Any professional environment in which one person holds seniority or influence over the other can provide the setting for such transgressions, including teacher-student and doctor-patient relationships. This definition has expanded to the degree that sexual harassment may be alleged even when there is no employer or supervisor relationship involved. For example, co-workers who tell sexual jokes or stories that make their colleagues uncomfortable may be causing a form of harassment often referred to as a “hostile work environment.” Actual direct requests or demands for sex as a condition of job security are known as “quid pro quo” cases. Neither does sexual harassment depend on the sex or gender of the individuals involved. A woman can sexually harass a man, a man may sexually harass a woman, or both parties may be of the same gender.
When does a situation reach the point where it would be considered sexual harassment? Definitions such as “inappropriate touching” may be open to interpretation, making such cases less cut-and-dried than one might think. In addition what one might view as sexual harassment may be considered by others to be completely innocent, non-sexual behavior.
To help clarify these issues and reduce the risk of frivolous accusations, the law applies something called a “reasonable person standard” to sexual harassment cases. This basically means that a reasonable person would conclude that the specific actions in the case constituted sexual harassment. For instance, say a group of employees regularly visited a local bar every Friday night, and one of the employees regularly asked another employee to come to this event. A reasonable person would probably see that as a normal social gesture, not a sexual overture. Hostile work environment cases, in which you must establish that an abusive work environment existed, can prove tougher to define than the more straightforward quid pro quo cases. These cases require very fact-intensive inquiries that may vary greatly in each circumstance.
To prevent such difficult and troubling situations, businesses must have the correct policies in place to outline what is acceptable and unacceptable behavior. Even then, simply stating your stance on these issues is insufficient – the business must also select and implement the correct procedures to investigate and address any allegations of sexual harassment.
© 2018 Matthew W. Harrison and Harrison Law, PLLC All Rights Reserved
This website and article have been prepared by Harrison Law, PLLC for informational purposes only and does not, and is not intended to, constitute legal or financial advice. The information is not provided in the course of an attorney-client relationship and is not intended to substitute for legal advice from an attorney licensed in your jurisdiction.