Navigating Workplace Boundaries: Understanding Your Right to a Sexual Harassment Free Workplace

By: Attorney Chance Sturup

In the ever-evolving landscape of the American workplace, ensuring a safe and inclusive environment is crucial for the well-being of employees. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 serves as a cornerstone in this effort by prohibiting discrimination based on a person’s sex or gender. Within the realm of workplace conduct, sexual harassment is a topic that demands attention and understanding. This blog post aims to shed light on what constitutes sexual harassment under Title VII, to provide clarity on what is, and is not acceptable in your workplace, and to give you a roadmap for how to hold your employer responsible when your employer violates your rights under Title VII.

Defining Sexual Harassment

Sexual harassment, as defined by Title VII, refers to unwelcome advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature. This unwelcome behavior can create a hostile or intimidating work environment, interfering with an individual’s work performance and overall well-being. It is important to note that both men and women can be victims of sexual harassment, and the harasser and the victim can be of the same or opposite sex.

Types of Sexual Harassment

Title VII recognizes two primary forms of sexual harassment: quid pro quo harassment and hostile work environment harassment.

  1. Hostile Work Environment Harassment: Hostile work environment harassment involves unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature that creates an intimidating, offensive, or hostile work environment. This can include offensive jokes, explicit images, unwanted touching, or inappropriate comments that interfere with an individual’s ability to perform their job.  This is the most common form of sexual harassment.
  1. Quid Pro Quo Harassment: Quid pro quo, Latin for “something for something,” occurs when a person in a position of power, like a supervisor or manager, conditions employment benefits, like a raise, promotion, or continued employment, on the submission to unwelcome sexual advances. For instance, a supervisor demanding sexual favors in exchange for a promotion or job security is a clear example of quid pro quo harassment.

Common Scenarios of Sexual Harassment

Understanding the signs of sexual harassment is crucial for both employees and employers.  Many employees are victims of sexual harassment and never assert their rights to a safe and respectful working environment.  While each situation is unique, if any of the following scenarios sound familiar to you, you should consider taking action:

  • A co-worker continues to ask for a date or romantic encounter despite already turning them down.
  • Explicit images or sexual jokes are sent into a group text or email chain, even if not directed specifically at you.
  • A co-worker touches or massages your body without your permission.
  • You are involuntarily exposed, in person or by picture, to a co-workers naked body.
  • A co-worker uncomfortably discusses their own sexual activity.
  • A boss or supervisor gives favorable treatment to employees who give him or her sexual favors.
  • Co-workers ask invasive questions about your body or sexual activity.

Retaliation under Title VII

Title VII not only makes sexual harassment in the workplace illegal, it also makes it illegal for employers to retaliate against employees for engaging in protected activities related to sexual harassment.  Retaliation may include termination, suspension, demotion, harassment, or unfair treatment that comes as a result of protected activity. 

Protected activities which are protected under Title VII include reporting sexual harassment to any person of authority in the workplace, such as a supervisor, member of management, or human resources officer.  Protected activity includes reporting sexual harassment on behalf of oneself, as well as on behalf of others.  It also includes participation in any investigation into potential sexual harassment, and the refusal to submit to sexual harassment perpetrated by a person of authority in the workplace.

Legal Recourse under Title VII

Title VII provides a legal framework for addressing sexual harassment in the workplace. Employees who experience harassment can take the following steps:

  1. Internal Reporting: Report the harassment to a supervisor, manager, or human resources representative within the organization as soon as possible.  It is  legally difficult to hold an employer responsible for sexual harassment in the workplace if no member of management or human resources is ever informed of its occurrence.
  1. EEOC Complaint: If internal reporting does not resolve the issue, employees can file a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), the federal agency responsible for enforcing Title VII. Employees have the right to be represented by an attorney when filing with the EEOC. The EEOC will investigate the complaint and, if appropriate, may pursue legal action against the employer.
  1. Legal Action: In many cases, particularly where employees are physically assaulted or face termination as a result of sexual harassment, employees may choose to file a lawsuit against their employer. Consulting with an attorney can help individuals understand their rights and navigate the legal process.

Stand Up for Your Rights

Title VII is a powerful tool to combat sexual harassment in the workplace. By understanding the forms of harassment, recognizing the signs, and knowing the legal recourse available, you can stand up for your rights to a workplace free from sexual harassment and retaliation, and hold your employer responsible when they fail to protect your rights.

If you are a victim of workplace sexual harassment or retaliation, or want to better understand your rights to a safe and respectful working environment, please give us a call.  My co-workers and I take pride in representing victims of sexual harassment and retaliation, and using Title VII to hold employers responsible for illegal workplace conduct. 

Locations in Columbia and Rock Hill
P.O. Box 11675
Columbia, SC 29211
(803) 799-9530

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