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How is sexual harassment actually defined?

With all the talk of sexual harassment and misconduct these days, a lot of people are confused. What actually constitutes sexual harassment? What conduct is illegal at work? Can you get in trouble merely for offending an especially touchy person? Is giving someone a pat on the back going to get you fired?

They're fair questions which courts have wrestled with over time. An offhand comment or isolated incident is unlikely to be considered sexual harassment. That said, the kinds of behavior that would be considered sexual harassment can be quite pervasive in some workplaces.

Let's take a look at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission's guidance. Sexual harassment can be perpetrated by a supervisor, a colleague or even a customer -- it's the employer's responsibility to maintain a safe workplace for all employees. It can affect both men and women, and the victim and the harasser can be of the same sex.

It generally involves pervasive and severe verbal or physical harassment of a sexual nature, such as unwelcome sexual advances, unwanted touching, or requests or demands for sexual favors. It can also involve gender-related rather than explicitly sexual actions, such as frequent, negative comments about women.

A single comment typically won't be considered sexual harassment unless it is very severe. Overall, sexual harassment involves repeated teasing, comments or other actions that create a hostile work environment. Or, it may involve attempts to obtain sexual favors in exchange for favorable job treatment -- or by threats of retaliation.

Most people understand that forcibly grabbing or kissing a coworker is off limits, along with serious misconduct like genital exposure and sexual touching. For most people, the confusion is over where the line is between an incident that makes someone uncomfortable and an incident that would be considered illegal in the workplace.

Can you ask a coworker out on a date? Can you compliment them on their appearance? Will you get in trouble for patting someone on the back or giving them a congratulatory hug?

Most of the time, these actions are going to be fine. If you're not sure, however, it's good to ask. Be respectful and mindful of your company's policies. If dating is allowed in your office, you can generally ask once and be fine, but do not persist if the interest isn't returned.

A good general rule is to avoid doing or saying anything you wouldn't do or say to a respected person, such as your grandmother.

If you are experiencing sexual harassment at work, you may have questions about what's appropriate and what your rights are. We encourage you to reach out to an employment law attorney before taking any actions at work.

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