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What counts as sexual harassment?

When it comes to sexual harassment in the workplace, many people fail to report incidents because they are unsure about whether or not their experience qualifies as abuse. Thankfully, you needn't wonder. The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission clearly defines several different circumstances that qualify as sexual harassment.

Offensive conduct

If you witness conduct or language that is offensive, such as using racial slurs or sexual innuendo to intimidate others, this can qualify as sexual harassment, even if the words or actions were directed elsewhere. If this behavior happens frequently, you should record or write down what you hear to verify the offense. Documentation is often key to your defense.

Unwelcome advances

Sexual harassment also includes situations where a fellow coworker, no matter what position he or she holds, makes sexual advances towards another person. This includes any language or conduct of a sexual nature or any requests for sexual favors. The key is that the behavior must be unsolicited.

Repeated requests for sexual favors, derogatory comments about gender and a culture that encourages or dismisses such behavior can create a hostile work environment. In such workplaces, employees often feel intimidated or helpless when trying to report incidents of sexual harassment, which can constitute a form of harassment itself.

Gender harassment

Under California's state laws, an employer may enforce a dress or grooming code but must allow employees to dress according to their specific gender expression. Demeaning or degrading the person for his or her sexual identity qualifies as sexual harassment.

Related conditions

Sexual harassment isn't limited to offensive comments about a person's gender in California. The law considers derogatory comments or suggestive acts about childbirth, breastfeeding or pregnancy to be forms of sexual harassment too.

Quid pro quo

One of the most destructive, serious form of sexual harassment is known as quid pro quo (literally, "this for that"). This occurs when you're pressured to engage in unwanted sexual acts in order to maintain your employment or advance in your career. Quid pro quo sexual harassment can look like:

  • Your employer threatening to fire you if you refuse to participate
  • Your supervisor withholding a promotion unless you comply with requests for sexual favors
  • A business owner or hiring manager requiring that an applicant give sexual favors in order to get a job

What you can do about sexual harassment at work

Regardless of whether it's subtle or explicit, all types of sexual harassment are illegal. You may worry that you will lose a position if you report the behavior, but the law is on your side. Your lawyer and legal authorities like the EEOC will work to ensure that equality is maintained and justice is served.

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