How to Deal With Sexual Harassment

Which of the following true incidents do you believe are sexual harassment?

A co-worker keeps his wife's picture on his desk. The picture was taken on their Hawaiian honeymoon, and she's wearing a bikini. The picture is visible to anyone who enters his office.

An older man in the office refers to the younger women in the office as "the girls." When addressing them, he calls them "honey" or "sweetheart." Sometimes he puts an arm around their shoulder, and tells them that "pretty girls keep this old guy going."

As they walked out of a restaurant following a business lunch, the boss dropped a handful of M&Ms into his secretary's breast pocket and squeezed her breast.

A newly hired employee leaves his wife and two children at home when he accepts a job on an offshore oil rig. On the rig, he's taunted by other employees — and by supervisors. One day a co-worker holds him in a shower stall while another co-worker shoves a bar of soap between his buttocks and threatens to rape him.

Perhaps you find all these incidents offensive. Or perhaps you find the photo harmless, the older man lacking in judgment and the M&M and soap incidents repugnant. And therein is the challenge of sexual harassment — what's hostile or offensive is, to a large extent, in the eye of the beholder, which makes it hard to define.

What Is Sexual Harassment?

Officially, the EEOC says that sexual harassment includes "unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature." Specifically, such requests, advances or sexual conduct constitute harassment when:

Submission to such conduct is made a term or condition of employment or submission to or rejection of such conduct is used as a basis for employment decisions affecting the individual (these are often referred to as quid pro quo harassment).

Such conduct has the purpose or effect of unreasonably interfering with an employee's work performance or creating an intimidating, hostile or offensive working environment (commonly known as hostile work environment harassment).

That polite legalese covers, if you'll pardon the phrase, a multitude of sins: pressure for sex, touching, groping, suggestive behavior, provocative clothing, sexual humor, sexually explicit or suggestive photos, Internet porn, the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue, the Victoria's Secret catalogue, and much more.

Are all those examples of sexual harassment under any circumstances? No. The courts have generally determined that something is harassment using the standard of a "reasonable person." (Some courts have held that if the alleged victim is a woman, then the standard is what a reasonable woman — not person — will consider unwelcome and sexual.)

That legalese certainly sounds, well, reasonable. But it hasn't kept sexual harassment from becoming the most controversial, divisive issue in the workplace.

That's because it's proven surprisingly difficult to reach a consensus about what's "reasonable." Cultural changes — including the greater prevalence of sexual images, language and discussion throughout society, a backlash against ideas seen by some as "politically correct," use of false allegations of sexual harassment to retaliate, and an increase in workplace dating — have complicated the picture.

The Middle Road

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