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Sexual Harassment – Is One Dirty Joke Enough?

Sexual Harassment can make work an uncomfortable place
Sexual Harassment Can Make Work An Uncomfortable Place

When people call Kaminsky Law, one of the first questions they ask whether or not the conduct they have experienced is considered sexual harassment. Often they feel like they have been a victim of sexual harassment, but are unsure of when certain behavior crosses over the line. For instance, is one dirty joke enough? What about one unwanted touch? This blog is to help our readers define sexual harassment as it is defined by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and Pennsylvania Law.

Sexual Harassment as defined by the EEOC

It is universally unlawful to discriminate against an employee based on membership of a protected class. The EEOC is responsible for enforcing these federal laws and investigating any claims of violations. EEOC regulations apply to employers with more than 15 employees. Sex or gender is a protected class that includes pregnancy, sexual orientation, and transgender status. Any harassment that relates to gender will fall into this category.

Generally, harassment is defined as annoying, threatening, intimidating conduct or actions that place a person in fear of their safety. It includes things like derogatory comments, jokes, or offensive touching. The EEOC defines sexual harassment specifically as:

Unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical harassment of a sexual nature.

Harassment does not have to be of a sexual nature, however, and can include offensive remarks about a person’s sex. For example, it is illegal to harass a woman by making offensive comments about women in general.

EEOC Website Definition of Sexual Harassment

Sexual harassment can occur even if the harasser and victim are the same sex. The harasser does not always have to be another employee. Clients or customers can also sexually harass employees and an employer can be liable if they know about the harassment and fail to take action.

Sexual Harassment as defined by Pennsylvania Law

While the EEOC regulates at a federal level, each state is permitted to enact their own set of laws regarding harassment and discrimination. Pennsylvania has codified this in the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act (PHRA). Specifically:

Workplace sexual harassment is unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and/or other verbal, visual or physical conduct of a sexual nature where:

– Submission to or rejection of such conduct is made either explicitly or implicitly a term or condition of an individual’s employment;

– Submission to or rejection of such conduct by an individual is used as a basis for employment decisions affecting that individual; or

– Such conduct has the purpose of or effect of unreasonably interfering with an individual’s work performance or creating an intimidating, hostile, or offensive working environment.

PHRA Website Definition of Sexual Harassment

When the conduct becomes sexual harassment

Both the EEOC and the PHRA agree that petty slights, annoyances, and isolated incidents generally are not enough for a sexual harassment claim. When the employee continually receives unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, or other verbal or physical harassment of a sexual nature, the conduct crosses over and becomes sexual harassment. But it’s not just about sex. It can also include offense remarks, objectification, or hostility about a person’s gender or sexual orientation.

Sexual harassment is very fact specific. For instance, one dirty joke told by a co-worker? Probably not sexual harassment. However, one instance of unwanted sexual advances, such as cornering a co-worker and trying to kiss them? Almost certainly will be deemed sexual harassment.

Other examples of sexual harassment include:

  • Repeated sharing of sexually suggestive videos or images
  • Sending sexual emails, letters, or texts
  • Making offense jokes or disparaging sexual remarks that refer to another employee, or
  • Commenting about a co-worker’s body, sexual preferences, or orientation.

In general, the question is, is this severe or pervasive enough that it creates a work environment that would be intimidating, hostile, or offensive to a reasonable person? If you dread going to work because of behavior discussed above, you may be experiencing sexual harassment. You should also know that if you report any instance of sexual harassment to your employer and adverse employment action is taken against you, your employer can be liable. If you feel that you have no other choice but to quit, read our blog on this topic first to make sure you are protecting yourself and your legal rights.

What to do if you believe you have been sexually harassed

If you believe that you have been sexually harassed, start to gather proof. Note dates, times, locations, specific details, and the names of any witnesses for each occurrence. You should notify your employer directly or through the human resources department–in writing. If there is no resolution, you can make an official complaint with the EEOC who will investigate the claims. In Pennsylvania, you can also make an official complaint to the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission. These complaints must be made within 180 days of the alleged act of harassment.

If you are thinking of filing a sexual harassment lawsuit, or need help making a complaint to the EEOC or the PHRC, Kaminsky Law handles various types of employment disputes, including workplace harassment and sexual harassment. An official complaint must be filed with both of these agencies first before you can initiate a lawsuit. If you have not yet made a complaint to the EEOC or the PHRC, you can fill out a contact form for help with the process, or call our hotline at (215) 876-0800 for a free consultation. If you have already filed the complaints and received a right to sue letter, an experienced sexual harassment lawyer can help you move forward with filing a lawsuit.

We are available to review your situation, answer questions, and help you resolve your employment dispute!

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Aubrie Linder
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