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Studies over the last ten years indicate that 40 to 70 percent of women interviewed have been exposed to inappropriate sexual behavior on the job. Consequently, every employer must develop an awareness of situations that constitute sexual harassment, and an understanding of accountability and liability.

Sexual harassment is defined in one of two ways: (1) quid pro quo situations; and (2) circumstances that create a "hostile environment." In the first category, employment, advancement, or benefits are dependent upon the employee's submission to unwelcome sexual advances or behavior, including demands for sexual favors, unwanted touching, leering, and sexually suggestive gestures.

The second category, a hostile environment, is created when the victim is subjected to offensive behavior that consistently affects his/her work performance. Such behavior includes sexually explicit graffiti, offensive sexual epithets, abusive language, or vulgarities. The differences between incidents of bad taste and those of sexual harassment are based upon the frequency of behavior, the severity of the incident, the reaction of the victim, and the harasser's recognition of the victim's response.

According to the Civil Rights Act of 1991, the potential for employer liability may be unlimited. Employers are liable for the sexual harassment actions of their supervisors, and their liability may extend to the behavior of other employees. Legal experts advise that employers are held responsible if the employer knows or should have been aware of the harassment and took no steps to correct the situation.

  • In order to avoid liability, an employer should take the following preventive steps:
  • Adopt and implement a company policy against sexual harassment;
  • Inform all employees about that policy;
  • Train all supervisory staff to recognize a hostile environment and to respond sensitively to a complaint of harassment;
  • Establish procedures for handling sexual harassment complaints;
  • Take investigative and corrective action in response to any complaints, including discharge of the offender, when warranted.

Handling a Sexual Harassment Complaint

  1. The charge should be reported right away to the company official designated by corporate policy.
  2. The designated official should conduct a thorough, documented, but confidential investigation, informing only those individuals considered essential to the investigatory process. Subsequent interviews should be conducted with witnesses or others with knowledge of the incident(s).
  3. All information regarding the investigation should be documented and kept in a separate file.
  4. Once the investigation is complete, the victim should be informed that appropriate disciplinary action has been taken. The victim does not need to be informed of the exact nature of the discipline.
  5. The victim should be reassured that he or she will not be subject to retaliation and that he or she has legitimately pursued employee rights.

Further information on matters of sexual harassment can be obtained from: Equal Employment Opportunity Commission Office of Communications and Legislative Affairs 1801 L St., NW Washington, DC 20507 (202) 663-4900, or (800) 669-4000 (to contact local EEOC office); also 9 to 5, Working Women Education Fund 614 Superior Avenue, NW, Room 852 Cleveland, OH 44113 (216) 566-9308.