Workplace sexual harassment refers to unwelcome or offensive behavior of a sexual nature that occurs at work. It involves any form of unwanted sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, or other verbal or physical conduct that creates an intimidating, hostile, or offensive work environment.
Sexual harassment can take various forms, including:
- Verbal Harassment: This includes sexually explicit comments, jokes, or innuendos, derogatory remarks about a person’s gender, offensive remarks about a person’s appearance or body, or the use of sexually explicit or vulgar language. These can be verbal, by email, in text messages, and even on slack or some other workplace communication medium.
- Physical Harassment: Involves unwelcome physical contact such as touching, groping, hugging, or brushing against a person without their consent. It can also include displaying sexually suggestive gestures or materials.
- Non-Verbal Harassment: Includes leering, staring, or making sexually suggestive gestures that are unwelcome and create discomfort for the targeted individual. This also includes the display of sexually explicit images, posters, or objects in the workplace that create an offensive or hostile environment.
Sexual harassment typically results in a hostile work environment. Often, though, sexual harassment takes a different turn, becoming an exchange. Quid Pro Quo harassment occurs when a person in a position of power or authority engages in sexual harassment or requests for sexual favors in exchange for job benefits, promotions, or protection from adverse employment actions. Much like hostileqork environment, quid pro quo harassment is illegal.
It is important to note that sexual harassment can happen to anyone, regardless of their gender or the gender of the harasser. It is not limited to one particular industry or occupation and can occur in any workplace environment. Wherever it occurs, though, most employers have a legal responsibility to prevent and address sexual harassment in the workplace.
Under Federal Laws:
- Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964: Title VII prohibits workplace discrimination, including sexual harassment, based on sex. It applies to employers with 15 or more employees and covers both public and private sector employees.
- The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC): The EEOC is the federal agency responsible for enforcing Title VII. Employees who experience sexual harassment can file a complaint with the EEOC within 180 days (or 300 days in some states) of the incident. The EEOC investigates complaints and may facilitate resolution or pursue legal action on behalf of the victim.
- The U.S. Department of Labor (DOL): The DOL enforces federal laws related to workplace protections, including sexual harassment. They provide guidance and resources to employers and employees to prevent and address harassment.
Some states, including Massachusetts, also have laws that protect against sexual harassment:
- Massachusetts General Laws Chapter 151B: This state law prohibits workplace discrimination, including sexual harassment, based on various protected characteristics, including sex and gender. It covers employers with six or more employees.
- Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination (MCAD): The MCAD is the state agency responsible for enforcing Chapter 151B. Employees who experience sexual harassment can file a complaint with the MCAD within 300 days of the incident. The MCAD investigates complaints and may facilitate resolution or pursue legal action on behalf of the victim.
- Sexual Harassment Prevention Law: In 2018, Massachusetts enacted a law requiring employers with six or more employees to provide sexual harassment prevention training to all employees. The law also mandates certain policies and reporting procedures to address sexual harassment in the workplace.
- Extended Statute of Limitations: Massachusetts law extends the statute of limitations for filing a sexual harassment complaint with the MCAD to three years, compared to the federal deadline of 180/300 days with the EEOC.
Not only do employers have a legal duty to maintain environments free of sexual harassment, the obligations often also require policies and procedures to prevent harassment, training to employees, clear reporting mechanisms, and taking appropriate disciplinary action against those who engage in such behavior.
For victims of sexual harassment, reporting that harassment triggers yet further protection. First, the law often requires employers conduct a thorough and impartial investigation when sexual harassment is reported. Then, if the allegations are substantiated, appropriate disciplinary action may be required against the harasser. Lastly, employees who experience sexual harassment and report it are protected against retaliation. That is, they cannot be terminated or disciplined in retaliation for reporting.
It is crucial for individuals who have experienced sexual harassment to familiarize themselves with the laws and resources available in their jurisdiction. Seeking legal advice from an attorney or contacting relevant government agencies or labor boards can provide guidance on the specific protections and options available to them.