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While claims of harassment and assault against Harvey Weinstein are grabbing all the headlines, the explosion of #MeToo on Twitter and social media proves that sexual harassment exists across all employment and gender boundaries. Sexual harassment by anyone, at any job or even outside of work, is unacceptable, but many of us struggle with identifying sexual harassment when it happens and how to respond.
So here are some clues on spotting sexual harassment at work, and how to deal with it.
Perpetrators of harassment will often claim that the comments or behavior were just jokes, guys being guys, or should be expected in certain workplace environments. Or, like Weinstein, argue that such behavior was acceptable in the past. This can often make it seem like the definition of sexual harassment is a fuzzy one, open to the parties' interpretation, and constantly evolving over time.
[U]nwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature constitute sexual harassment when this conduct explicitly or implicitly affects an individual's employment, unreasonably interferes with an individual's work performance, or creates an intimidating, hostile, or offensive work environment.
And just because past behavior went unpunished doesn't make it permissible now. So if that conduct occurs in the office, it constitutes sexual harassment.
Any workplace should have clearly defined policies and procedures for reporting, investigating, and, if need be, punishing sexual harassment. Those policies should be EEOC-compliant, and give employees a safe haven for harassment reports, free from further harassment or retaliation. If internal channels fail, employees can file a charge with the EEOC.
Beyond that, employees can file civil lawsuits against the harassing party or the employer for failing to adhere to its own internal policies or abide by EEOC requirements. And if, god forbid, the behavior goes beyond harassment and constitutes assault or rape, you can report criminal conduct to the police.
If you're unsure if workplace conduct constitutes sexual harassment or unsure of how to respond, contact an experienced employment attorney in your area.