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What are the different types of sexual harassment?

According to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), there are two types of sexual harassment claims: “hostile work environment” and “quid pro quo.”  The EEOC provides guidance on defining sexual harassment and establishing employer liability.

Hostile Work Environment

Hostile work environment harassment arises when speech or conduct is so severe and pervasive it that creates an intimidating or demeaning environment or situation that negatively affects a person’s job performance. This type of harassment can be perpetrated by anyone in the work environment, including a peer, supervisor, subordinate, vendor, customer or contractor. Hostile work environment situations are not as easy to recognize, given that an individual comment or occurrence may not be severe, demeaning behavior may occur that is not based on sex, and there may be long periods between offensive incidents. Examples of conduct that might create a hostile work environment include inappropriate touching, sexual jokes or comments, repeated requests for dates and a work environment where offensive pictures are displayed. See In hostile work environment harassment situations, what is meant by the term ‘reasonable person’?

Quid Pro Quo

Quid pro quo means “this for that.” In this context, it involves expressed or implied demands for sexual favors in exchange for some benefit (e.g., a promotion, pay increase) or to avoid some detriment (e.g., termination, demotion) in the workplace. Quid pro quo harassment is perpetrated by someone who is in a position of power or authority over another (e.g., manager or supervisor over a subordinate). A clear example of quid pro quo harassment would be a supervisor threatening to fire an employee if he or she does not have sex with the supervisor. 

The EEOC says sexual harassment can occur in a variety of circumstances, including the following:

  • The victim as well as the harasser may be a woman or a man. The victim does not have to be of the opposite sex.
  • The harasser can be the victim's supervisor, an agent of the employer, a supervisor in another area, a co-worker or a nonemployee.
  • The victim does not have to be the person harassed but could be anyone affected by the offensive conduct.
  • Unlawful sexual harassment may occur without economic injury to or discharge of the victim.
  • The harasser's conduct must be unwelcome.  

Prevention is the best tool to eliminate sexual harassment in the workplace. By communicating to employees that sexual harassment will not be tolerated, by training on harassment prevention, by establishing an effective complaint process, and by taking immediate and appropriate action when an employee complains, employers have an opportunity to stop inappropriate behavior before it reaches the level of illegal harassment.


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