coworker makes an advance to female

As hard as it is to believe, blatant sexual harassment still exists in the workplace. It can be embarrassing, degrading, and humiliating. Sometimes it’s difficult for the victim to speak up. However, both Ohio and federal law offers protection to employees who have been subject to sexual harassment or a hostile work environment.

What is sexual harassment?

Sexual harassment is more than lewd or crude comments at work. Just because it may be offensive and sexual in nature does make it to sexual harassment. Rather, sexual harassment has been defined as “unwelcomed” sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, or other verbal or physical contact of a sexual nature at work. The key here is “unwelcomed.” Willing participation, mutual flirtation, and similar conduct is rarely sexual harassment. Rather, there has to be an element of oppression; that the victim’s will is being subjugated and that she (most often it is a female though we have had cases where the victim was a male) is submitting because of the work relationship.

For example, if you feel that you are participating or submitting to sexual conduct or sexual harassment to keep your job, you probably have a case. If you feel that employment decisions such as raises, promotions, and placement are contingent on you participating, you probably have a case. Or if the sexual harassment is simply prohibiting you from doing your job or is creating a “hostile work environment,” you probably have a case.

There are three principal forms of sexual harassment.

  • Quid pro quo.

Quid pro quo is Latin which means “this for that.” Under a quid pro quo theory of sexual harassment there is an express or implied offer that employer will provide something to the victim in exchange for sex or sexual favors. For example, your boss suggests that a certain promotion or raise might be available to you “if you’re nice to him” and the clear implication is that you submit to his sexual advances. A quid pro quo theory only applies to supervisors and managers because they are the only ones that are in a position to offer you something for something. It usually doesn’t apply to coworkers.

  • Hostile work environment

Hostile work environment is pretty much what it sounds like. This is when the sexual conduct or misconduct makes it very difficult or impossible for you to do your job. This type of sexual harassment can to be committed by both supervisors and coworkers. This has to be more than mere horseplay or joking around.  Rather, it has to be constant and pervasive conduct of a sexual nature that becomes intolerable to the victim. Blatant sexual comments, crude jokes, touching, expressed or implied solicitations, graphic discussions or comments about sexual acts, which the victim finds unwelcomed and makes it difficult for her to do her job, can amount to a hostile work environment. The key here is that the conduct is sexual or gender based and rises to the level of intolerability.

  • Sexual Favoritism

Sexual favoritism is a form of sexual harassment that occurs when an employee can show that they were denied a promotion or other employment opportunity because the employer favored someone else because of a sexual relationship. For example, a co-worker is promoted over you, given a raise, or somehow shown favoritism because she is “sleeping with the boss.” Regardless of whether you are male or female, if you were denied an equal employment opportunity because of sexual activity, you may have a case.

Workplace Sexual Conduct (and Misconduct)

Studies frequently show that the large number of people meet their spouses either at school or at work. As a consequence, dating in the workplace is not uncommon. While it may be frowned upon by your employer, or even prohibited, the mere fact that people choose to enter into a voluntary personal relationship that results in sexual conduct is simply not sexual harassment. The line that has to be crossed is the conduct must be at some point be unwelcomed. Obviously, sexual conduct that is unwelcomed from the outset is sexual harassment. However, conduct that may have been at one point welcomed, but later becomes unwelcomed, can become sexual harassment as well. For example, an office romance that goes south can result in lingering and bitter resentment that can become sexual harassment. That, by the way, is one of the reasons why employers don’t like sexual relationships in the workplace in the first place because they can be disruptive.

If someone asked you to go out, that’s probably not sexual harassment. If they ask you a second time, it’s probably still not sexual harassment. But at some point if they continue to persist and conduct becomes unwelcomed, it can become sexual harassment.

If you suffer sexual harassment and report it to the appropriate authorities (your supervisor or HR), and they don’t do anything, please contact us. We will.

You should not be afraid to report sexual harassment. If your employer retaliates against you for reporting sexual harassment, that in and of itself is a legal cause of action. Said another way, your employer may not take any adverse employment action against you because you reported or complained of sexual harassment.

Overall, the law takes a commonsensical approach to what is sexual harassment. Life is rough-and-tumble. People say things we don’t like. People can be crude and offensive, and the workplace can be unpleasant. We’re expected to have thick skins. But you’re not expected to work in intolerable working conditions because of sexual harassment. Verbal abuse, sexual jokes, intentional touching, groping, solicitations for sex or sexual favors, or sexual favoritism are all against the law.

The foregoing is merely a very general explanation of the law and intended only to educate potential clients as to their rights in this area. If you have any specific questions, please call Beggs Law Offices.