“When the workplace is permeated with ‘discriminatory intimidation, ridicule, and insult,’ . . . that is ‘sufficiently severe or pervasive to alter the conditions of the victim’s employment and create an abusive working environment,’ . . . Title VII is violated. ”
— Harris v. Forklift Systems, Inc.
Sexual harassment is somewhat confusingly defined legally in two different ways: quid pro quo harassment and the creation of a hostilework environment.
Hostile Work Environment
The creation of a hostile work environment based on sex (or some other protected characteristic), results when the atmosphere on the job is permeated with discriminatory insult and ridicule that is sufficiently “severe or pervasive” to alter the conditions of the employee’s environment. A few severe incidents, or many offensive but less severe ones, may suffice to meet the legal criteria for a hostile work environment. There is always a risk in reporting sexual harassment to one’s employer that one will not be believed or that one will be retaliated against, but employees should be aware that in many cases, the employer will have a defense against a charge of sexual harassment unless the employee reports it. Such choices are one reason why a prudent employee who is believes he or she is being subjected to sexual harassment should act promptly and seek legal advice.
Quid Pro Quo
Quid pro quo or “this for that” harassment involves the demand for or trading of sexual favors for a reciprocal benefit. e.g. the boss asks an employee for sexual favors in return for a promotion or even for just keeping the job.
Same Sex Harassment
While people often assume that sexual harassment involves a more powerful man harassing a female employee, this is not always the case. Not only may these roles be reversed, but the Supreme Court has also recognized that sexual harassment may be inflicted by a member of the same sex.
Other Forms of Harassment
Although sex is the reason for harassment that may come most readily to mind, harassment based on other protected characteristics, such as race, is also prohibited discrimination that is actionable in the courts.