How many times has a girl in elementary school complained to her parents that a boy in her class keeps bothering her, only for her parents to say, “He’s only playing because he likes you”? How many middle school girls have tormented a classmate with insults about her appearance, only for her parents to chalk it up to a case of garden variety “mean girls”? How many gay men have memories of high school classmates bullying them about their mannerisms and taste in music when they had gone out of their way not to say anything to their classmates about their sexual orientation? Adults who lived through these experiences probably consoled themselves by reminding themselves that high school graduation was only X number of days away, and soon they would be adults surrounded by adults, who were above such immature behavior.
Unfortunately, the workplace is not immune to bullying, even though employment laws and company policies endeavor to prevent it. Human nature is such that people easily exploit each other’s insecurities related to romantic relationships, physical appearance, and gender roles. In the context of employment law, workplace bullying that takes gender and sexuality as its subject matter is called sexual harassment, and the law treats it like any other kind of employment discrimination. The Philadelphia sexual harassment lawyers at HKM Employment Attorneys LLP can help you stand up for yourself if you have been a target of sexual harassment at work.
Employment Discrimination Laws and Sexual Harassment
Discrimination, defined as treating an employee unfairly because of a protected characteristic of the employee, is against the law. Sex, gender presentation (perceived masculinity, femininity, or androgyny), sexual orientation, family status, and pregnancy are protected characteristics. Other examples of protected characteristics include race, ethnic background, religion, age, national origin, and disability. Harassment, also known as a hostile work environment, is only one of many types of discriminatory actions. Other discriminatory actions include adverse actions formally taken by the employer, such as negative performance reviews, demotion, placing the employee on probation, undesired reassignment of work duties or location, denial of raises and promotions, and termination of employment. Therefore, sexual harassment is employment discrimination, as are racial harassment, sectarian harassment, age-related harassment, or any other type of harassment related to an employee’s protected characteristic.
Sexual harassment is anything that coworkers and work supervisors say and do in relation to an employee’s sex, sexuality, or romantic relationships. Media stereotypes about sexual harassment tend to involve a man in a leadership role flirting with a younger woman in a lower-paid position, even though this flirtation makes her uncomfortable. In reality, the parties to sexual harassment can be of any gender or sexual orientation. The following would all count as sexual harassment:
- A straight woman turns 30, and she has never been married. Her supervisor, a gay man, starts sending her links to dating sites and memes about her biological clock, and most of the members of her team give her the nickname “Bridget Jones.”
- A group of women in the workplace frequently make comments to their colleague, a recently divorced woman, about how her husband would not have left her if she were thinner and less bossy.
- A male manager gives an employee on his team, a recently married woman in her late 20s, an increasing amount of responsibility at work. He frequently makes comments about how it would be a pity if she later left her career to be a stay-at-home mom.
- A woman frequently flirts with her coworker, a recently married man. She jokes that she is his “work wife,” that all men cheat, and that it is only a matter of time before he cheats on his wife with her or someone else.
Quid Pro Quo Sexual Harassment and Employer Retaliation Laws
All of the above examples count as sexual harassment because they create a hostile work environment for the targeted employee. A specific type of sexual harassment, known as quid pro quo sexual harassment, is even more insidious. “Quid pro quo” is a Latin phrase that means “this for that.” In quid pro quo sexual harassment, an employee in a management or leadership role offers a subordinate employee an incentive if the employee complies with a request related to sex or romance or threatens the employee with an adverse action if the subordinate employee does not comply with the request. For example, it is quid pro quo sexual harassment if your supervisor offers you a promotion if you go on a date with her or if your manager threatens to fire you unless you send him risqué photos of yourself.
If your employer takes adverse action against you because you refuse to comply with the request or because you complain to human resources about the harassment, this is employer retaliation. The law prohibits employer retaliation both in cases of discrimination, including sexual harassment, and in cases where an employer retaliates against an employee for engaging in a protected activity, such as filing a discrimination complaint.
How an Employment Lawyer Can Help You With a Sexual Harassment Claim
With discrimination cases, including those involving sexual harassment, you cannot just go straight to court and sue your employer. Employment discrimination cases have a few additional steps. Whether or not you have first tried to resolve the matter with the human resources department at your organization, a prerequisite to filing a lawsuit is to contact the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) or the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission (PHRC). After your first series of meetings with an EEOC counselor, the EEOC will conduct an investigation into your allegations and, if applicable, other instances of sexual harassment in your organization. You can only file a lawsuit against your employer about sexual harassment after the EEOC authorizes you to do so.
Contact HKM Employment Attorneys, LLP About Sexual Harassment in the Workplace
The Philadelphia employment lawyers at HKM Employment Attorneys, LLP can help you document and report sexual harassment at your place of employment. Contact the employment lawyers at HKM Employment Attorneys LLP in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, to set up a consultation.