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When Is It Sexual Harassment and What Can Be Done to Prevent It?

Most employers know that sexual harassment is a form of discrimination that violates Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The legal definition of sexual harassment is “unwelcome verbal, visual, or physical conduct of a sexual nature that is severe or pervasive and affects working conditions or creates a hostile work environment.”

While this definition may seem clear cut, the issues surrounding what constitutes sexual harassment are not. One of the most difficult aspects of examining a sexual harassment charge is deciding whether or not the conduct in question was truly harassment, and not just an innocent exchange between consenting adults.

There are two scenarios, that when they exist, are a definitive sign of sexual harassment:

1. Hostile environment – This is the most prevalent type. A work environment becomes a hostile environment when an employee is made so uncomfortable by a pattern of repeated, unwanted behavior that they cannot perform their job.

2. Quid pro quo – This Latin phrase literally means “this for that.” Quid pro quo occurs when a supervisor, or other person acting with authority, withholds, demands, or promises a benefit if the employee submits to unwelcome sexual conduct.

Keep in mind when trying to determine if an employee’s/supervisor’s actions constitute harassment; you have to view the conduct in question from the victim’s perspective. The victim determines whether the conduct is severe and pervasive enough to create a hostile environment. The harasser’s intentions do not play a role in the matter.

If there are recurring incidences of employees making sexual harassment charges in your organization, it is probably not a question of supervisors being unaware of inappropriate behavior. Rather it’s a matter of supervisors not taking action when they see inappropriate behavior. Failure to act is far more common than you may think. It is usually the result of a supervisor feeling unsure as to whether the behavior was really unacceptable, or not knowing the proper way to confront the parties involved.

The best way to remove these hindrances is to:

· Establish a sexual harassment policy that sets forth what actions are acceptable, what actions are considered sexually threatening, and what steps will be taken if anyone is found to be in violation of company policy. Once you have clearly defined your policy, document it and provide a copy to each employee. All employees should sign a disclosure that says that not only have they read the policy and understood it, but they also understand the consequences for failing to uphold it.

· Provide training – Supervisors should be given appropriate training in the correct manner of investigating a charge of sexual harassment including the types of questions to ask, how to file a written report, and to whom the report should be given.

It is also a good idea to be proactive in avoiding formal confrontations by periodically walking around and talking with employees. Many times an informal conversation can tip you off to a potential powder keg.