11 minute read

Sexual Harassment

Same-sex Sexual Harassment, Clarence Thomas And Anita Hill Hearings, Further Readings

Unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature that tends to create a hostile or offensive work environment.

Sexual harassment is a form of SEX DISCRIMINATION that occurs in the workplace. Persons who are the victims of sexual harassment may sue under Title VII of the CIVIL RIGHTS ACT OF 1964 (42 U.S.C.A. § 2000e et seq.), which prohibits sex discrimination in the workplace.

The federal courts did not recognize sexual harassment as a form of sex discrimination until the 1970s, because the problem originally was perceived as isolated incidents of flirtation in the workplace. Employers are now aware that they can be sued by the victims of workplace sexual harassment. The accusations of sexual harassment made by ANITA F. HILL against Supreme Court Justice CLARENCE THOMAS during his 1991 confirmation hearings also raised societal consciousness about this issue.

Courts and employers generally use the definition of sexual harassment contained in the guidelines of the U.S. EQUAL EMPLOYMENT OPPORTUNITY COMMISSION (EEOC). This language has also formed the basis for most state laws prohibiting sexual harassment. The guidelines state:

Unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature constitute sexual harassment when

  1. submission to such conduct is made either explicitly or implicitly a term or condition of an individual's employment,
  2. submission to or rejection of such conduct by an individual is used as the basis for employment decisions affecting such individuals, or
  3. such conduct has the purpose or effect of unreasonably interfering with an individual's work performance or creating an intimidating, hostile, or offensive working environment. (29 C.F.R. § 1604.11 [1980])

A key part of the definition is the use of the word unwelcome. Unwelcome or uninvited conduct or communication of a sexual nature is prohibited; welcome or invited actions or words are not unlawful. Sexual or romantic interaction between consenting people at work may be offensive to observers or may violate company policy, but it is not sexual harassment.

The courts have generally concluded that a victim need not say or do a particular thing to indicate unwelcomeness. Instead, a court will review all of the circumstances to determine whether it was reasonably clear to the harasser that the conduct was unwelcome. The courts have recognized that victims may be afraid to express their discomfort if the harasser is their boss or is physically intimidating. Victims may be coerced into going along with sexual talk or activities because they believe they will be punished or fired if they protest. Consent can be given to a relationship and then withdrawn when the relationship ends. Once it is withdrawn, continued romantic or sexual words or actions are not protected by the past relationship and may be sexual harassment.

The law prohibits unwelcome "sexual" conduct and words or actions "of a sexual nature." Some conduct, such as hugging, may be sexual or nonsexual and must be evaluated in context. Sexual harassment may be physical, such as kissing, hugging, pinching, patting, grabbing, blocking the victim's path, leering or staring, or standing very close to the victim. It may also be verbal, which may be oral or written and could include requests

or demands for dates or sex, sexual jokes, comments about the victim's body or clothing, whistles, catcalls, or comments or questions about the victim's or harasser's social life or sexual life. Sexual harassment may also be visual, such as cartoons, pictures, or objects of a sexual nature.

The laws against sexual harassment are violated when "submission to such conduct is made either explicitly or implicitly a term or condition of…employment." This language refers to what is sometimes called quid pro quo sexual harassment, in which a victim's hire, job security, pay, receipt of benefits, or status depends on her or his response to a superior's sexual overtures, comments, or actions. The quid pro quo may be direct, as when a superior explicitly demands sexual favors and threatens firing if the demands are not met, or it may be indirect, as when a superior suggests that employment success depends on "personality" or "friendship" rather than competence.

Sexual harassment also occurs when sexual conduct or communication "unreasonably interfer[es] with an individual's work performance." Tangible loss of pay, benefits, or the job itself is not required for sexual harassment to be claimed and proven. Generally, occurrences must be significant or repeated or both for substantial interference to be established.

Unreasonable interference can occur between coworkers of equal status as well as between superiors and subordinates. The employer of the coworker may be legally liable for such harassment if the employer knows or should know about it and fails to take timely and appropriate responsive action.

The sexual harassment lawsuit filed in 1994 by Paula Jones against President BILL CLINTON highlighted this workplace issue. In 1991 Jones was an employee of the Arkansas Industrial Development Commission and Clinton was governor of Arkansas. Jones claimed that while working at an official conference at a Little Rock hotel, she was persuaded by a member of the Arkansas state police to visit the governor in a business suite at the hotel. She alleged that Clinton made sexual advances that she rejected. Jones also claimed that because she rejected his advances, her superiors dealt with her in a rude and hostile manner and changed her job duties.

Clinton denied the charges and sought to delay the lawsuit until after he left the presidency. The Supreme Court rejected this argument in Clinton v. Jones, 520 U.S. 681, 117 S.Ct. 1636, 137 L.Ed.2d 945 (1997), and he was forced to defend himself. In 1998 the federal district court dismissed her action, ruling that there was no proof that Jones was emotionally injured or punished in the workplace for rejecting Clinton's advances. Jones appealed this ruling but agreed to drop her lawsuit in return for $850,000. She also dropped her previous demand that Clinton apologize or make an admission of guilt.

The most far-reaching part of the EEOC definition is that dealing with a hostile or offensive working environment. The U.S. Supreme Court upheld the concept of a hostile work environment as actionable under the 1964 Civil Rights Act in Meritor Savings Bank v. Vinson, 477 U.S. 57, 106 S. Ct. 2399, 91 L. Ed. 49 (1986). The Court rejected a narrow reading of the statute, under which an employer could not be held liable for sexual harassment unless the employee's salary and promotions were affected by the actions.

In the Vinson case, plaintiff Michelle Vinson, an employee of Meritor Savings Bank, claimed that her male supervisor, Sidney Taylor, had sexually harassed her. Taylor made repeated demands for sexual favors, and the pair engaged in sexual relations at least 40 times. Vinson testified that she engaged in sexual relations because she feared losing her job if she refused. The harassment stopped after Vinson began a steady relationship with a boyfriend. One year later, Taylor fired Vinson for excessive use of medical leave. Although the bank had a procedure for reporting harassment, Vinson had not used it because it required her to report the alleged offenses to her supervisor—Taylor.

Justice WILLIAM H. REHNQUIST, writing for the Court, established several basic principles for analyzing hostile environment cases. First, for sexual harassment to be actionable, it must be severe enough to change the conditions of the victim's employment and create an abusive working environment. Here, Rehnquist implied that isolated occurrences of harassment (such as the telling of a dirty joke or the display of a sexually explicit photograph) would not constitute a hostile work environment.

Second, Rehnquist made clear that there is a difference between voluntary behavior and welcome behavior. Noting that Vinson and Taylor's sexual relations were voluntary, Rehnquist rejected the conclusion that Vinson's willingness constituted a defense to sexual harassment. The critical issue was whether the sexual advances were welcome. If sexual advances are unwelcome, the inequality of power between a supervisor and subordinate strongly suggests that the employee engages in sexual relations out of fear.

Third, Rehnquist held that courts must view the totality of the circumstances when deciding the issue of welcomeness. In Vinson, however, the Court did not address the question of whose perspective should be used in determining whether certain behavior so substantially changes the work environment that it becomes abusive: should the standard be that of a reasonable man, a REASONABLE WOMAN, or a reasonable person?

In Robinson v. Jacksonville Shipyards, 760 F. Supp. 1486 (M.D. Fla. 1991), federal district judge Howell Melton applied the reasonable woman test to determine if the work environment was abusive to women. He held that a reasonable woman exposed to the pictures of nude or partially nude women that were posted in the workplace and to the sexually demeaning remarks and jokes by male workers would find that the work environment at the shipyards was abusive. The totality of the circumstances would lead a reasonable woman to these conclusions.

The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals echoed this reasoning in Ellison v. Brady, 924 F.2d 872 (1991). In Ellison, the court rejected the reasonable person standard in favor of the reasonable woman standard. The court believed that using the reasonable person standard would risk enforcing the prevailing level of discrimination because that standard would be male biased.

Even with the acceptance of the reasonable woman standard by the courts, the diversity of outcomes in harassment claims created confusion as to what constitutes harassment. In Harris v. Forklift Systems, 510 U.S. 17, 114 S. Ct. 367, 126 L. Ed. 295 (1993), the Supreme Court attempted to clarify this issue. Teresa Harris had filed a discrimination claim based on the behavior of the company president, Charles Hardy. Hardy had insulted Harris and other women with demeaning references to their gender and with unwanted sexual innuendo.

The district court ruled that although Hardy's comments were sufficiently offensive to cause discomfort for a reasonable woman, they did not rise to the level of interfering with that woman's work performance. The court also held that Harris had not been injured by the comments.

The Supreme Court overruled the lower court, holding that courts must not focus their inquiry on concrete psychological harm, which is not required by Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. To maintain such a requirement would force employees to submit to discriminatory behavior until they were completely broken by it. So long as the workplace environment would reasonably be perceived as hostile or abusive, it did not need also to be psychologically injurious.

Thus, the plaintiff in a hostile work environment case must show that sexually harassing behavior is more than occasional, but need not document an abusive environment that causes actual psychological injury. The courts recognize that a hostile work environment will detract from employees' job performance, discourage employees from remaining in their positions, and keep employees from advancing in their careers. The Title VII guiding rule of workplace equality requires that employers prevent a hostile work environment.

In Burlington Industries, Inc. v. Ellerth, 524 U.S. 742, 118 S.Ct. 2257, 141 L.Ed.2d 633 (1998), the Supreme Court sought to clarify the confusing state of sexual harassment law. It held that an employee could sue for damages for sexual harassment under Title VII even if the employee did not suffer any adverse job consequences, such as demotion or termination. The Court stated that under Title VII, an employee who refuses "unwelcome and threatening sexual advances of supervisor, yet suffers no adverse, tangible job consequences" may recover damages from an employer. The employee does not have to show that the employer was negligent or at fault for the supervisor's actions to recover damages. The Court based its new standard on principles of agency law. Agency law describes the responsibilities of employers and employees to each other and to third parties. The Court invoked the agency principle that makes employers liable for the TORTS of employees who act or speak on behalf of the employer and whose apparent authority the victimized employee relies upon.

The Court, however, also provided employers with more protection in Ellerth. If a supervisor has harassed an employee, but no tangible employment action is taken against the employee, the employer may present an AFFIRMATIVE DEFENSE. This defense includes a showing that the employer exercised reasonable care to prevent and correct sexually harassing behavior. A company's policy against sexual harassment would be relevant to demonstrate reasonable care. The defense also allows the employer to show that the employee had unreasonably failed to take advantage of the employer's anti-harassment procedures.

Ellerth gave employers an additional incentive to institute policies against sexual harassment. A first step is determining if a problem exists. Some companies conduct informal surveys of their employees concerning sexual harassment. In addition, employers often inspect the workplace for objectionable material, such as photographs of nude people or insensitive or explicit jokes with sexual connotations.

Employers typically include a policy against sexual harassment in personnel policies or employee handbooks. These policies use the EEOC definition of prohibited conduct as a guideline. The prohibited conduct must be stated in an understandable way.

A complaint procedure is typically part of the policy. Most employers recognize that a prompt and thorough investigation of a complaint, followed by appropriate disciplinary action, can minimize liability. These procedures usually specify to whom a victim of harassment can complain if the victim's supervisor is the alleged harasser. Companies also routinely train supervisors to recognize sexual harassment. Finally, some employers provide sexual harassment training for all their employees as a way of trying to improve workplace culture and behavior, as well as minimizing their legal liability.


Employment Law; Women's Rights.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationFree Legal Encyclopedia: Secretary to SHAs