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Addressing sexual harassment in the workplace

In our last post, we looked briefly at recent research showing that sexual harassment training in the workplace may actually be counterproductive. We also noted that part of the reason for this may be that sexual harassment training typically doesn’t do a great job of discussing the gray areas of sexual harassment. Doing so is also difficult because of the lack of clarity in the subject itself and people tend to need clear ideas and images to effectively change their behavior.

As we mentioned last time, not every instance of harassment in the workplace is going to rise to the level of being illegal. Rather, the offensive conduct must meet a certain level of gravity to be considered illegal. Harassment reaches this level when it becomes a condition of continued employment. This can sometimes happen between employees and their supervisors. According to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, an employer is automatically liable for harassment by a supervisor which results in adverse employment action. 

An employer may also be held vicariously liable supervisor actions which result in a work environment that could reasonably be considered abusive, intimidating or hostile. An employer is able to avoid liability, though, if it can prove that it took prompt and reasonable steps to prevent and correct the behavior and that the employee unreasonably failed to avail him- or herself of opportunities through the employer. Employers may also be held liable for harassment by non-supervisory employees or even non-employees if the employer has control over such individuals and failed to take prompt and reasonable corrective action.

Employees who believe they have been subjected to illegal sexual harassment on the job and who have exhausted workplace processes for addressing such issues can take their case to the next level. In our next post, we’ll look at the role of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in such cases and the place of filing a lawsuit in federal court as a plaintiff. 

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