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Sexual Harassment in the Workplace

Sexual Harassment in the Workplace

With sexual harassment allegations dominating the news, many employees want to know what constitutes sexual harassment and what should they do if they have been sexually harassed at work.

What is considered sexual harassment under the law?

The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission describes sexual harassment as unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature when such conduct explicitly or implicitly affects someone’s employment, unreasonably interferes with someone’s work performance, or creates an intimidating, hostile, or offensive work environment.

Under the law, sexual harassment falls into two categories:

  • Hostile work environment: actions of a supervisor or coworker are “severe and pervasive,” and create an intimidating, hostile, or offensive work environment. An example of a hostile work environment is a supervisor routinely touching an employee inappropriately and making suggestive sexual comments. Single or isolated instances of offensive sexual conduct or remarks generally do not create a hostile work environment unless the conduct is severe or egregious. An EEOC case against Texas Roadhouse provides an example of hostile work environment allegations. In that case, the EEOC alleged the restaurant manager sexually harassed female servers, hostesses and other front-of-the-house workers by subjecting them to unwanted touching, humiliating remarks about their bodies and pressuring them for sexual favors in exchange for employment benefits. The EEOC announced a $1.4 million settlement for the workers in that case in 2016.
  • Quid pro quo: an arrangement is suggested where a sexual relationship is exchanged for some job-related benefit. An example of this kind of harassment is a supervisor denying an employee a promotion because the employee would not engage in some kind of sexual relationship with the supervisor. In an example from the news, actresses have accused Harvey Weinstein of requiring them to engage in sexual acts in order to get parts in his films.

Where does sexual harassment occur?

Although sexual harassment is reported in all types of industries and workplaces, it is especially prevalent in the restaurant industry. A 2014 study by worker advocacy group Restaurant Opportunities Centers United reported that although in America only 7% of women work in the restaurant industry, more than a third of all sexual harassment claims to the EEOC come from workers in the restaurant industry. Recently, Tom Colicchio, celebrity chef and host of Top Chef, wrote an open letter to restaurant workers in the wake of recent sexual harassment allegations. He condemned the blatant sexism by identifying a variety of issues, including that women are largely gone from the back of the house in the kitchen by the time they are in their 30s, women are being paid 28% less than male counterparts, and lewd comments are being made towards women.

What should I do if I have been sexually harassed?

You should report the harassment so your employer knows what has happened. Check your employee handbook to find out how to report the harassment. If there are no clear policies, speak with human resources or a supervisor.

If you don’t think your employer took appropriate steps to address your claim, you can contact an attorney.

Can I be fired for reporting sexual harassment?

The law prevents retaliating against an employee for reporting sexual harassment. This means an employer cannot do things like changing your work schedule, lowering your pay rate, change your job position, or firing you simply because you complained about sexual harassment.

Does Thomas & Solomon handle sexual harassment cases?

Yes. Our lawyers are trained to handle sexual harassment claims and can provide guidance to employees who have experienced sexual harassment. Because there are deadlines for making a claim of sexual harassment, it is important to speak with an attorney as soon as possible to preserve your rights.  Contact us for a confidential evaluation of your situation.

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