If you were to think about what sexual harassment would look like at your place of work, what would you picture? When most people think about sexual harassment, they imagine a supervisor (typically male) taking advantage of his authority over a female subordinate. This is not an inaccurate association by any means, but it falls far from the extent of how what is considered sexual harassment and to whom it can occur.
Despite strides in the public discourse about those who take advantage of their employees or coworkers by engaging in sexual harassment, many myths about it persist. In this article, we’ll examine a few common myths and discuss why they should be considered as such.
1. Only Women Experience Sexual Harassment
Our first myth is a popular one – that it’s only women who can be sexually harassed in the workplace. The reality is that anyone, regardless of sex, gender identity, or sexual orientation can be a victim or perpetrator of sexual harassment. To be clear, it’s the behavior itself that defines sexual harassment – not [TB1] is victimized by it.
2. Sexual Harassment Is Strictly Physical
While plenty of examples of sexual harassment involve touching, these may only be its starkest portrayal. Sexual harassment can be physical or non-physical, with the latter category encompassing verbal harassment, making gestures, or the display of offensive messages or imagery. In other words, sexual harassment can involve unwanted touching, comments or jokes, obscene gestures, as well as sexually offensive or derogatory imagery at work.
It’s important to note that there is no delineation[TB2] between physical and non-physical forms of sexual harassment. While a jury may be inclined to award greater damages depending upon the severity of the harassment, any behavior that constitutes sexual misconduct is regarded as such.
3. I must be directly subjected to sexual harassment
Some folks believe that sexual harassment doesn’t exist unless they are directly harassed in the workplace. This is not the case. Sexual harassment can exist if you indirectly experience an uncomfortable and hostile work environment. This can consist of hearing offensive jokes, witnessing a coworker being sexually harassed, or seeing a coworker watch pornography on their work computers.
4. Good Will Negates Sexual Harassment
As previously stated, someone’s behavior is often the only thing that matters in a sexual harassment lawsuit. The harasser’s intentions rarely matter, and if they do, it’s because ill-intent is being taken into account.
This means someone’s genuine “compliment” about a coworker’s appearance, even if intended in good faith, can be sexually harassing if the coworker makes you feel uncomfortable. In a similar scenario, someone may genuinely wish to date a coworker. However, continued requests or advances for a date can constitute sexual harassment if unwelcomed.
5. Sexual Harassment Only Happens at Work or during Work Hours
A lot of workplace sexual harassment is reported as occurring at work for obvious reasons. This can lead many people to believe that sexual harassment between coworkers is possible only when it’s in the workplace setting or during work hours.
This is entirely false. If two people share a common employer and one is engaging in sexual harassment after work hours or even online, the victim can file a report with their employer. While the company may not be liable for harassment that occurs away from its office or during off-hours, it might have a responsibility to respond to sexual harassment reports involving its employees regardless.
6. Human Resources Is Primarily Concerned with Stopping Harassment
Instead of protecting humans (workers), we have found that human resources are concerned with protecting their own jobs and the employer’s they work for. Rather than serving the workforce, many times, human resources serve as the risk manager of their employer. Whenever reporting sexual harassment to human resources, make sure to do so in writing and keep a backup copy.
7. Companies Aren’t Liable for Their Clients’ Behavior
When a third-party doing business with a company is sexually harassing employees, the company is inclined to intervene. Employers obviously can’t reprimand a customer or client as they can do to an employee, but there are a number of alternative solutions they can explore.
Such alternatives can include the following:
- Requesting the client send a new representative
- Banning the offender from company property
- Removing the employee from exposure to the offender
- Ensuring the employee has another coworker present when interacting with the client
- Placing the employee on another account to avoid interacting with the offending client
- Dropping the client’s business
Whatever actions employers take, they must not be to the detriment of the employee or the employer may be liable for retaliation.
8. Remote Work Makes Sexual Harassment Impossible
Even if two employees have never been in the same room together, sexual harassment can occur. Any of many types of non-physical behaviors can still occur when employees are working remotely. Offensive comments can be spoken on calls, offensive imagery can be sent in emails and messages, obscene gestures can be displayed on video conference calls.
We would also be remiss if we didn’t mention that quid pro quo sexual harassment – demanding sexual favors in exchange for incentives like promotions – can absolutely occur irrespective of an employee’s location.
9. Sexual Desire Always Drives Sexual Harassment
This is a myth that most might readily accept without giving it a second thought. While sexual desire can certainly drive someone’s offensive behavior, it’s not necessary. In many cases, it’s the desire for the harasser to feel dominant or powerful over someone else that drives sexual harassment. This can also explain why the stereotypical power dynamic involves a supervisor and employee, but an employee may harass the supervisor for the same reason.
10. Harassers Lose Interest If They’re Ignored
Lastly, one of the most damaging myths about sexual harassment is that it’ll stop if it’s ignored.
Allowing sexual harassment to persist unchecked can lead to worse behavior or additional victims over time. Those who are impacted by sexual harassment should make it clear that it is unwanted and document their demands for it to stop. They should also inform their managers and consider consulting with an employment law attorney if their employer is ineffective in stopping the harasser.
Do You Need Legal Help?
If you believe you are a victim of sexual harassment, reach out to our employment law attorneys at Bailess Smith, PLLC. We help employees assert their rights in a variety of disputes, helping each work toward a recovery of fair and just compensation.
Schedule a free initial consultation with an attorney who can help. Call Bailess Smith PLLC at (304) 553-0337 or contact us online today!
[TB1] The person doing the sexual harassment is highly important as to whether its sexual harassment. If it’s a co-worker and left unreported, then its not sexual harassment under the law if the employer had know notice of the sexual harassment.
[TB2]My clients/jury pool is not going to understand what delineation means. Keep it simple, just say “difference.”