What is sexual harassment in the workplace?

Sexual harassment in the workplace is defined as unwanted sexual advances, whether verbal or physical in nature. Sexual harassment includes unwelcome sexual touching, sexual propositions, cat-calling, and offers for sexual intercourse. The harasser and victim of sexual harassment could be of any gender or could be gender non-binary (What is Sexual Harassment Law – FindLaw).  There are two types of sexual harassment that occur in the workplace: “quid pro quo” sexual harassment and hostile work environment sexual harassment.

“Quid pro quo” sexual harassment occurs when an employer provides job benefits or favorable conditions to his/her employee contingent on sexual favors. In addition, “quid pro quo” sexual harassment could occur when an employer negatively affects the employer’s job (such as creating bad reports or reviews of the employee) if the employee does not comply with the employer’s sexual favors. The employer could convey these sexual favors implicitly or explicitly. An example of “quid pro quo” sexual harassment includes when an employer insists for sexual favors in order for an employee to receive a promotion. Another example of “quid pro quo” sexual harassment is when an employer puts his hand on his female employee’s thigh and asks “Don’t you want this job?” Although the employer does not explicitly tell his female employee that he would not hire her if she objected, it was implicitly implied that she would not be hired if she would not comply with his sexual advances. If an employee decided to file a “quid pro quo” sexual harassment case, then she could receive compensation for lost benefits or employement opportunities. The employee could also receive their job back if he/she claims to have developed emotional distress from his or her employer’s sexually harassing conduct (What is Sexual Harassment Law – FindLaw).

In contrast, hostile work environment sexual harassment occurs when an employer’s sexually harassing behavior towards his/her employee creates a work enviornment that is hostile, intimidating, offensive, oppressive, or abusive. The employer’s sexual harassing behavior must be so “severe and pervasive” that it hinders the employee’s ability to carry out his/her duties. An example of hostile work environment sexual harassment includes, but it not limited to, unwelcome sexual jokes, suggestive comments, cartoons, physical interference with movement, and sexual derogatory remarks.

In a hostile work environment sexual harassment case, the plaintiff does not necessarily have to be the target of the sexual harassment. In fact, a case could be made if the plaintiff merely witnessed sexual harassing behavior between his/her coworker(s) and employer in the workplace. However, as previously mentioned, the employer’s harassing behavior has to be categorized as so “severe and pervasive” that it created a hostile work environment for the plaintiff. In addition, a hostile work environment sexual harassment case could be made for sexually harassing behavior that occurs between employees or between an employee and a non-employee at the workplace. In these such instances, the employer is liable for all cases of hostile work environment sexual harassment that occurs in the workplace, as stated by the Fair and Housing Act (FEHA).