One of the confusing things about sexual harassment is that it is highly specific to the situations in which it occurs, which means that what constitutes harassment in one situation with a specific person might not for someone else in a different scenario. Additionally, it can involve people who don’t even work for the company, such as customers, clients or vendors that interact with employees.
The definition of workplace sexual harassment is broad and interpretive to offer the best possible protection for workers against harassment and abuse in the workplace. In general, it is the perception of the victim, not the intent of those engaging in harassing behavior, that matters in the eyes of the law. These nuances can lead some people to claim that it is impossible to define sexual harassment.
However, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has clear and straightforward categories for sexual harassment that has been part of their public statement and guidance on workplace sexual harassment since 1990. All cases of sexual harassment fall into one of these two categories.
Sometimes, an employer uses a job as leverage to ask for favors
Quid pro quo is a Latin term that literally means “this for that.” In the world of workplace sexual harassment, quid pro quo harassment involves one individual offering some kind of workplace benefit for romantic or sexual favors.
Offering someone a paid day off in return for a date could be an example. So could demanding sexual gratification in return for a raise or a promotion. No one in a managerial or ownership position should ever leverage their role with the company to elicit sexual or romantic favors from anyone who works with the company, its suppliers or its clients.
Sexual harassment can also involve making work dangerous or miserable
The second primary category of sexual harassment is harassment that contributes to a hostile work environment. This is the form of harassment that people often find to be unclear. Even jokes or gossip can sometimes create a hostile work environment that impacts someone’s safety or ability to perform their job.
Hostile work environment sexual harassment does not require any sort of sexual tension or attraction between the involved parties. Members of the same sex who are both heterosexual can engage in harassment by demeaning or abusing someone of the same sex based on their appearance, sexuality or gender.