Workplace sexual harassment: where is the line?

On Behalf of | Jan 24, 2020 | Workplace harassment

Sexual harassment, in any form, is never acceptable. In the workplace, committing or falsely accusing someone of such an offense can lead to penalties, a firing, and the possibility of legal consequences for severe acts. The question is, where’s the line in the sand?

Though often unwelcomed, it’s no surprise that some people like to walk the line between what they deem as playful and harassing behavior. A broad definition of workplace sexual harassment that would violate company policy and possibly the law is an act that’s viewed as unwelcomed or offensive. Also, the act must violate at least one of the victim’s protected characteristics (race, gender, age, sexual orientation), and the action must prove to be severe or pervasive.

Back to the main question, which acts would count as workplace sexual harassment?

  • Sharing or displaying any sexually-derived content (pornography, explicit images or gifs) with a co-worker or in the workplace
  • Sending any co-worker suggestive notes or emails
  • Telling pervasive jokes, stories or anecdotes
  • Sexually suggestive gesturing, staring or whistling
  • Speaking sexually about someone’s appearance or body
  • Pinching, patting, rubbing or any other inappropriate body to body contact with another individual
  • Asking sexually explicit questions or making a disrespectful comment about one’s sexual history, sexual orientation or gender

Speaking to “CBS This Morning,” Allison West, an employment attorney, Human Resources specialist and nationwide workplace harassment trainer, stated that workplace harassment falls into one of two categories: a hostile work environment or quid pro quo.

The acts outlined above would fall into the category of creating a hostile work environment. 

Quid pro quo, according to West, includes a sexually driven situation in which a sexual act is performed for a reward. If the advancer is dismissed, they may inflict a punishment on the victim, say firing the employee who rebuffed their advances.

The bottom line is that any sexual act, no matter the significance, can be viewed and reported as workplace sexual harassment. There are also many actions a worker can display that count as non-sexual workplace harassment.

If a co-worker has harassed you and you wish to pursue legal action, remember that you have employee rights to provide yourself a level playing field.