Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 makes workplace sexual harassment illegal. Sexual harassment includes sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other sexual conduct that “explicitly or implicitly affects an individual’s employment”. This includes “quid pro quo” behavior, and any conduct that works to create a hostile work environment. The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) is tasked with enforcing Title VII. An investigation will consider the wider picture of the workplace by asking questions like: What is the nature of the sexual advances? What is the context of the workplace?
Each allegation is determined on a case-by-case basis.
Sexual harassment is not just about sexual advances. Offensive remarks about a person’s sex and disparaging remarks about “women” are included. The law doesn’t prohibit mere teasing or isolated incidents, but it can rise to harassment when the behavior is repeated and severe. The harasser can be a supervisor, boss, co-worker, or client/customer and there isn’t always a clear line between good behavior and bad behavior.
What Isn’t Sexual Harassment (but Maybe Should Be)?
Isolated incidents are generally not considered sexual harassment. While it may feel like sexual harassment (and maybe it is) for your male coworker to make a sexually explicit comment, gesture or even touching, it probably won’t be considered harassment by the EEOC. In the age of social media, it’s even easier for those one-off comments to happen, or even repeated advances to occur, but it may be harder to show the EEOC how it’s affecting the workplace.
Because the EEOC looks for patterns of behavior and the overall environment of a workplace, there is a lot of behavior that is harassing that will end up being overlooked by an EEOC investigation because it is subtle and because there is no paper trail. It is key to be able to document incidents of sexual comments, innuendo, unwanted touching, and disparate treatment to show the EEOC how often and how exactly you’ve been harassed.