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What Is Employer Sexual Harassment?

By Alan Rankin
Updated May 17, 2024
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Employer sexual harassment is when an employer creates a hostile work environment for an employee or employees through sexual harassment. Sexual harassment is any unwelcome action involving comments or behavior of a sexual nature. It can include sexual advances, lewd comments, lewd jokes or physical contact. Employer sexual harassment refers specifically to harassment by an employer or supervisor that is directed at subordinates. This creates an uncomfortable atmosphere and a state of intimidation, because the employees might feel that their jobs will be jeopardized if they report the harassment.

Sexual harassment was once widespread in numerous public and private sector jobs. Increased awareness, laws and workplace regulations have curtailed it somewhat, but it can still occur at any time. Employer sexual harassment is a particular problem. Some people respond to positions of authority by manipulating their subordinates, such as offering employment incentives in exchange for sexual favors. Others might simply be unaware that their behavior is inappropriate for a workplace environment.

In many jurisdictions, any behavior that creates an uncomfortable atmosphere and is sexually related constitutes sexual harassment. For example, a male employer who makes derogatory comments about women around his female employees might be guilty of employer sexual harassment, even if he does not direct his remarks at the employees themselves. Likewise, two women who knowingly make sexual jokes within earshot of a male employee might be creating a hostile work environment. Sexual harassment is illegal in many countries and usually violates workplace regulations as well.

Although the classic example of employer sexual harassment is the male employer who solicits sexual favors from female employees, other situations also apply. The employer can be male or female and could be the same gender as the person being harassed. Some situations are harmless, of course, and not every off-color joke constitutes sexual harassment. The general standard is that the behavior must be unwelcome, frequent and/or inappropriate to the person being addressed. If an employer is in doubt about whether a remark is appropriate, it’s best to err on the side of caution.

In case of employer sexual harassment, it generally is recommended for the victim to first informing the harasser that the behavior is unwelcome and to file a grievance with the company’s human resource department, if possible. This might not stop the harassment, but it will create a record of the behavior. If the harassment continues, it should be reported it to the employer’s supervisors, upper management or a regulatory agency that oversees companies in that industry. In many countries, it is illegal to fire or penalize a person for reporting sexual harassment. In extreme cases, a civil lawsuit might be necessary.

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