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Sexual Harassment Makes Headlines Once Again

Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain is the latest in a long line of politicians to be accused of sexual misconduct. Allegations that Cain sexually harassed several female subordinates during his three-year term as president of the National Restaurant Association in the mid 1990s raise new questions about what is, and what isn’t, sexual harassment in the workplace.

According to the US Equal Opportunity Employment Commission (EEOC), sexual harassment includes “unwelcomed sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical harassment of a sexual nature.” If a supervisor invites a subordinate back to his hotel room, as Cain is accused of having done, that could easily be considered a sexual advance.

Certain types of harassment, however, are not nearly as overt or even necessarily sexual in nature. Offensive remarks about a person’s sex could constitute harassment. For example, if a women is the sole female on the floor of a manufacturing shop, and she is continually teased about her gender or she becomes the target of offensive comments about women in general, that could be grounds for a sexual harassment claim.

Of course, sexual harassment does not discriminate. Men can be victims too. In fact, men in female-dominated industries or work environments often find themselves easy targets for gender teasing.

The notion that a comment or behavior was never meant to be taken seriously is a typical response to accusations of sexual harassment — “we were just teasing,” or “it was only a joke.”

And when did sharing a joke or even a meal with a colleague of the opposite sex become criminal?

To be clear, the law does not define simple teasing, offhand comments, or isolated and insignificant incidents as harassment. A line is crossed, however, when harassment is so frequent or an incident so severe that it creates a hostile or offensive work environment. It is, of course, also considered harassment if an incident results in an adverse employment decision, such as an employee being fired or demoted for refusing a supervisor’s advances.

Immediate supervisors are presumed perpetrators of sexual harassment because of their position of authority, however higher level executives, supervisors from other areas of the company, and coworkers are all capable of harassment. Even clients or customers will often cross professional boundaries. After all, who is going to say anything – the company doesn’t want to lose their business.

Because employers can be held accountable for the actions of their employees (the actions of clients and customers are more fuzzy), an employer is likely to be found liable for a supervisor’s harassment, especially if it results in a tangible employment action, such as a demotion. A company’s best defense is to take steps to prevent or promptly correct any harassing behavior. Training and strict disciplinary policies around harassment are a good start.

Lines will continue to be crossed and boundaries broken both here and in Washington. While we are not likely to fix that anytime soon, we can more closely monitor our own behaviors and those of our employees to help prevent the potential for harassment in our workplace.

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