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Legal definitions and requirements for workplace sexual harassment

Despite laws banning sexually suggestive and offensive comments and acts, sexual harassment remains one of the most common and pervasive forms of harassment in the workplace. From lewd jokes to physical assaults, sexual harassment can deeply and adversely impact those individuals who are victimized and employers must take steps to both prevent and stop harassment.

In the eyes of the law, there are two types of sexual harassment and it's important to understand each type and the requirements of both when considering legal action. 

Quid pro quo harassment occurs when acts of sexual harassment are committed by a superior against a subordinate. In these types of cases, an offending comment or act need only occur one time. Another key component to a quid pro quo claim is that the act is committed on the condition of an employee “getting or keeping a job or job benefit.

Sexual harassment cases based upon hostile work environment can be more difficult to prove. In these cases, an employee must be able to prove that the comments, acts or behaviors were offensive enough in nature to create a work environment that is abusive or hostile. When determining these types of cases, factors including the type and frequency of harassment must be evaluated as well as who was involved and the nature of the comments, acts or behaviors.

In addition to proving that the offensive acts occurred, an individual must also be able to provide documentation and proof that he or she made attempts to stop the harassment. For example sending an email to the harasser requesting that the behaviors cease, reporting the harassment to a supervisor and filing a formal complaint with an employer's human resources department all provide compelling evidence that an individual took steps to end the harassment.

It takes a tremendous amount of courage to come forward to report acts of sexual harassment. In cases where an employer is informed about the harassment and fails to take action or retaliates against an employee, an employer may be found liable. 

Source:, "Sexual Harassment at Work," March 24, 2015

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