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Understanding what constitutes sexual harassment

The workplace should be a place that is safe and comfortable for everyone working there. Unfortunately, this is not the reality for many people who suffer sexual harassment at the workplace. Sexual harassment is frequently misunderstood and many people may contribute to creating a hostile work environment for others simply because they do not understand what kinds of actions are included in the general term "sexual harassment."

The definition that is most commonly used to define sexual harassment is provided by the EEOC, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. The basic definition is "unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature" that occurs in at least one of three different situations. First, when the conduct unreasonably interferes with a person's performance of their job duties or causes a hostile work environment. Second, when an employee is required to submit or acquiesce to such conduct in order to maintain his or her employment. Lastly, when employment decisions are made based on how an employee reacts to such conduct.

It is important to understand that not all sexual conduct that occurs in the workplace is considered sexual harassment. The definition hinges on unwelcome or unwanted sexual advances. Even conduct that may be offensive or objectionable can avoid being sexual harassment if the person who is the object of the conduct agrees or consents to the behavior. There are many different actions that can constitute sexual harassment, ranging from actual or attempted sexual assault, unwanted deliberate touching, unwanted communication that is sexual in nature, and unwanted pressure for dates to cat calls, staring, giving of gifts, having sexually explicit materials in the workplace, or spreading rumors about a person's sex life.

Sexual harassment can consist solely of verbal actions, nonverbal actions or physical actions, so it is no defense to argue that a person never actually said anything to the victim or never actually touched the victim. Sexual harassment is a behavior, however, so it requires an action. A person may have certain offensive or sexist attitudes, but if he or she does not act out those attitudes in the workplace, he or she has not committed sexual harassment.

Source: United Nations, "What is Sexual Harassment," last accessed April 19, 2015

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