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What exactly is sexual harassment?

Numerous workplace laws govern employers and employees around the country. The goal behind these laws is to keep the American workforce safe and secure, and to protect both the rights of individuals and those of the companies who employ them.

For those laws to be effective, both the employee and the employer have to understand how they work and what their rights look like. That's why, when it comes to confusing or new policies, it is important to make sure that you know as much as you can about the topic and that you have the right facts. Nowhere in employment law is this truer than sexual harassment laws.

Definitions of sexual harassment

Under the law, the general definition of sexual harassment includes such behavior as:

  • Unwanted physical contact
  • Visual harassment, including displaying derogatory or explicit images
  • Verbal harassment, including jokes and slurs
  • Verbal or physical advances or propositions that are unwanted
  • Offering benefits (or threatening consequences) if employees do not provide sexual favors
  • Graphic commentary about people's bodies, whether intended as harassment or not

The law also recognizes that harassment happens in two forms, quid pro quo harassment and hostile work environments. In the first form of harassment, something is promised in exchange for favors. In the second, the workplace simply is considered a hostile environment, whether or not the person filing suit is the one directly targeted by the behavior in question.

Other facts about sexual harassment

On top of knowing the behaviors that can be considered sexual harassment under the law, it is important to know the ins and outs of how courts apply the law.

For example, under California law, employers are liable for a supervisor's harassment of an employee. It's also true that courts, including the Ninth District Court, have held that the standards for a hostile work environment under sexual assault do not meet the same standards required for that definition under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, unless they were severe and meet certain conditions.

What to do

Sexual harassment is serious. The law is designed to help victims, but it is also complex. That's why the best thing you can do if you have been sexually harassed in the workplace is to contact an attorney. Experienced employment lawyers will be able to advise you about your situation and help you to plan a way forward that protects you and ensures you receive everything you are entitled to under the law.

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