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When Does Friendly Flirting Become Sexual Harassment?

“Sexual harassment is defined as unwelcome, sexual conduct in the workplace,” a colleague clarified during a midday brunch. As an intern, Steve Richardson was harassed by a senior staff member who made repeated, unwanted advances. Eventually he summoned the nerve to report these episodes to management. “My supervisor adhered to the strict, no-tolerance policy and terminated the employee after an internal investigation,” Steve explained, still embarrassed about the incident. Although the matter was handled appropriately, my friend no longer felt comfortable at the job and left a few months later.

Unfortunately, these incidents are widespread. According to research conducted by Louis Harris and Associates in 2010, out of 782 workers polled, 31 percent of the female workers and 7 percent of the male workers claimed to have been harassed at work. Another study suggests that 40-70 percent of women and 10-20 percent of men have encountered workplace harassment in one form or another. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), who reviews approximately 15,000 sexual harassment complaints each year, reports an increase in the number of grievances filed by men.

The Equal Rights Advocates (ERA), led by executive director Noreen Farrell, is a San Francisco-based women’s rights organization established in 1974. They fight to protect and defend women’s rights against discriminatory practices in the work environment. In May 2012, due to ERA intervention, a grand jury awarded a Spanish-speaking immigrant $812,000 as compensation for sexual harassment and retaliation she endured in a male-dominated janitorial industry.

The ERA defines sexual harassment as well-documented, repeated offenses that have been rebuffed verbally or in writing. Remember our article on how to combat sexual harassment in the office? Writing your complaint down on paper was one of the most important steps. These assaults can be leering stares and gestures, harassing phone calls and emails, or attempts to touch and kiss an individual. Retaliation— vengeful acts against someone who has filed a complaint— is another form of harassment and is also illegal.

What is not considered sexual harassment?
According to the ERA site, a single act of indiscretion does not constitute sexual harassment. Engaging in consensual banter of a suggestive nature is not grounds for a sexual harassment claim either. While swearing and crude jokes make most people uncomfortable, it is not considered harassment if the insults are not directed at anyone in particular. Displaying adult material, like explicit magazines and calendars, is also permissible if it is not directed at anyone else. Asking someone out on a date is acceptable if the person is not pursued beyond an initial refusal. Of course, individual employers may have different guidelines. Employees must comply with policies specific to their workplace.

Generally speaking, most people want the security of knowing they will be treated with respect while on the job. Thanks to recent regulations, most employers have policies in place to assist those who believe they have been harassed. Experts say the establishment of a legal recourse has not eliminated all instances, but it has encouraged people to speak up if they believe they have been victimized. Silence leads to desensitization. Inappropriate behavior then becomes commonplace.

: Law Firms
IMAGE: Courtesy of Money Intention

Adrienne Jones

Adrienne Jones has worked as a freelance author, ghost writer, copy editor and writing coach for several years. She is the author of “Rhymes of Death”—a mystery novel and “Bible Theories”—a critical synopsis of biblical text. Her work has been published in various print and online media sources. She specializes in movie reviews, feature articles and artist profiles.

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