LL&D Law
Sexual Harassment in the Workplace

by Courtney Powell
11/18/2011 3:13:00 PM
     Sexual harassment can occur in a variety of circumstances.  Unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, or other verbal and/or physical conduct that is sexually explicit may constitute sexual harassment.  This is not an exclusive list, and any such conduct that affects an individual’s employment, unreasonably interferes with an individual’s work performance or creates an intimidating, hostile or offensive work environment could be considered sexual harassment.

     Courts have devised two terms of art to describe sexual harassment claims. The first is “quid pro quo sexual harassment.” The term describes situations where an employee is told that certain things will happen only if the employee succumbs to unwelcome sexual advances. For example, an employer informs a subordinate employee the only way he/she will remain employed is if the employee acquiesces to the employer’s request for sexual favors.  

     The second term is “hostile work environment.” Two types of hostile work environments are recognized: (1) where sexual conduct has the purpose or effect of unreasonably interfering with an individual’s work performance; or, (2) where sexual conduct has the purpose or effect of creating an intimidating, hostile, or offensive work environment. 

     There are certain steps an employer can take to help prevent liability for sexual harassment. The employer can establish and distribute to all employees a policy prohibiting harassment and setting forth the procedure for making complaints; remind employees in staff meetings that sexual harassment is prohibited; assure employees who make complaints that such complaints will be protected against retaliation; inform employees to report inappropriate behavior immediately; designate more than one individual to take complaints and ensure that these individuals are in accessible locations. Most importantly, employers should assure employees that all complaints will be kept confidential, to the extent possible, and employers must conduct a prompt, thorough and impartial investigation of the complaint.  Obviously, the existence of a complaint will become public once an investigation is conducted but the details should remain as confidential as possible while conducting the investigation. 

     Employers should consult an attorney in developing a plan for preventing sexual harassment, and to ensure the proper steps are taken if a claim of sexual harassment is made. 



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