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Does the law protect against sexual harassment?

Sexual harassment is commonly discussed in the media, but many employees may not have a complete understanding of what kinds of actions constitute sexual harassment or the laws that protect against sexual harassment. Under the law, any kind of harassment that is based on or due to a person's sex is classified as sexual harassment and is unlawful.

Sexual harassment can take many forms. Some of the most commonly discussed types of sexual harassment include requests for sexual favors and unwanted sexual advances, as well as other physical actions or verbal comments that are sexual in nature. Offensive sexual comments that make a person feel uncomfortable--such as comments relating to a person's appearance or body or other sexual topics--fall into the category of sexual harassment, but so do more generalized comments about a person's sex, such as derogatory comments about women.

One of the main laws that protects against sexual harassment in the workplace is Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Title VII explicitly covers workplaces where there are 15 or more employees,along with the federal government, state and local governments, employment agencies and labor organizations. Under the law, there is no differentiation between men and women when it comes to who can be a victim or perpetrator of sexual harassment, and the law also contemplates situations where both the victim and the harasser are the same sex.

The laws against sexual harassment do distinguish between minor, isolated, or offhand actions and comments, however, and conduct that is so frequent and severe that it has a significant effect on the victim. In many situations, the occurrence of sexual harassment creates a hostile work environment for the victim and can result in adverse employment decisions against the victim. However, in order for victims to demonstrate or prove sexual harassment, they are not required to show that they were fired or suffered an adverse employment decision or that they experienced economic harm as a result of the harassment.

Source: U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, "Sexual Harassment," last accessed Jan. 25, 2015

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