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Recognizing the signs of sexual harassment: quid pro quo and hostile work environment

Sexual harassment is a type of sex discrimination which can take a variety of forms. Not every form of sexual harassment is easily or immediately recognizable as such. In some cases, an employee is too close to the situation and the relationships giving rise to the harassment that he or she may not see it clearly right away. Or, maybe the employee suspects that harassment has occurred, but isn’t sure if what occurred is illegal.

Quid pro quo is a form of sexual harassment involving the attempt by a person in authority in the workplace to provide work benefits in exchange for sexual favors such as hiring, promotions, or continued employment. Co-workers do not have the ability to engage in this form of sexual harassment. Typically, quid pro quo sexual harassment is relatively recognizable, though it depends on the relationship the employee has with the superior in question. In addition, it is not necessarily always easy to prove that quid pro quo harassment occurred. 

Another form of sexual harassment is the hostile work environment, which refers to unwanted or offensive actions directed at an individual on the basis of the individual’s sex. It especially refers to actions which interfere with an employee’s job performance. This form of sexual harassment may, in some respects, be harder to recognize since it can accompany ordinary banter that occurs in the workplace or it may be only indirectly harming the employee. Hostile work environment may not only be harder to recognize, but an employee who suspects he or she has been subjected to a hostile work environment may also question whether what has occurred is serious enough that it constitutes sexual harassment. This is especially the case if the behavior only occurs occasionally.

Federal law requires that the inappropriate behavior must be serious or pervasive to be considered sexual harassment. Inappropriate sexual behavior or words on the job are not, in some cases, serious enough to constitute sexual harassment based only on a single incident. That being said, a single incident can be serious enough in itself and the impact it has on an employee that it may be considered illegal.

In our next post, we’ll continue looking at this issue, and how an experienced attorney can help hold employers responsible when they fail to properly address sexual harassment.

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