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What is sexual harassment in the workplace?

One of the most common forms of discrimination in the workplace is sexual harassment. Unfortunately, it is also one of the most difficult forms of discrimination to prove. The victim must show that:

  • the treatment was severe or pervasive
  • the treatment created a hostile working environment
  • and that the employer was negligent.

Below is detailed explanation of the definition of sexual harassment.


1.        The victim must prove that the treatment was “severe” or “pervasive” (long-lasting). Treatment that makes a person feel uncomfortable or offended alone does not count as sexual harassment. Sexual harassment usually counts as severe or pervasive when the victim:

  • was touched
  • was subject to verbal sexual treatment in public (where it is likely to be humiliating)
  • received unwanted treatment after the victim has told the offender to stop
  • received unwanted treatment from a supervisor
  • was a minor

2.        The sexual treatment must create a “hostile working environment.” A hostile working environment only exists if the evidence indicates that the treatment:

  • was unwanted by the victim, and
  • negatively affected the victim’s ability to get work done

If the victim appears to have played along with the treatment for whatever reason, perhaps even making sexual remarks him or herself, then it is unlikely that a court or the EEOC would believe that the treatment was unwanted.

3.        The employer is liable for the sexual harassment only if negligent.

  • If the harasser was a co-worker of the victim, then the employer is only liable if they knew or should have known about the treatment but refused to stop it. Some states even require the victim to complain to management before an employer can be held liable for the actions of the victim’s co-workers.
  • If the harasser was a supervisor of the victim, and:
  • the harassment resulted in the victim being fired, demoted, reassigned, etc., then the employer is automatically liable for that harassment.
  • the victim unreasonably failed to complain to management about the harassment, then the employer is not liable. The only time not complaining would be considered “reasonable” is when the person to whom the victim must complain is the harasser or if, for some other reason, it is clear that complaining would do no good.
  • the victim was not fired, demoted, reassigned, etc., then the employer is only liable if it failed to put policies and procedures in place to try and prevent harassment or if it failed to take quick action to discipline and resolve the harassment soon after learning about it.

Please note regulations differ from country to country so please refer the national law regarding sexual harassment.

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