The basics of unlawful sexual harassment in employment

There are two kinds of illegal sexual harassment that can happen at work.

Getting a job and doing it well are challenge enough, but when unwelcome sexual harassment becomes a problem for an applicant or employee in the workplace, both federal and state anti-discrimination laws provide legal remedies. A victim of sexual harassment at work should seek the legal advice of an experienced employment attorney as early as possible in order to understand reporting obligations and meet notice and filing deadlines to preserve available legal remedies, such as a state or federal lawsuit.

Sexual harassment falls into the category of sex discrimination and can be done by either a man or woman against someone of the same or opposite sex. The harasser can be a supervisor, a coworker, or even a non-employee legitimately in the workplace, such as a supplier, contractor or service provider.

Sexual harassment in employment falls into two categories, "quid pro quo" and "hostile work environment."

Quid pro quo (this for that) sexual harassment occurs when an employee is asked for a sexual favor in exchange for either an employment perk like a special assignment, raise or promotion, or to prevent a negative employment action like being fired or demoted.

Hostile work environment sexual harassment occurs when unwelcome behavior of a sexual nature makes it difficult to work or creates a hostile or offensive environment. The victims of such behavior can include both the person directly targeted by the harasser and anyone in the area whose work environment is adversely affected by the behavior.

Examples of unwelcome sexual behavior that can cause a hostile work environment include:

  • Rape, sexual assault or other unwanted sexual touching
  • Sexually disparaging or explicit comments
  • Crude sexual humor or gestures
  • Leering
  • Stalking, repeated requests for dates, or persistent sexual inquiries
  • Offensive sexual images on paper or screen
  • Sexually explicit electronic messages

An occasional off-color joke may not rise to the level of hostile work environment sexual harassment, but even a single incident may qualify if its adverse effect is very severe, as with a rape or a sexual assault. By the same token, even "minor" instances of unwelcome sexual conduct can create an unlawful hostile work environment if they happen repeatedly or regularly over time. Each case of hostile work environment sexual harassment depends on the specific facts and circumstances involved.

It is also illegal for an employer to retaliate against someone who complains to their employer about sexual harassment, cooperates in a sexual harassment investigation or files a sexual harassment complaint or lawsuit.

Both state and federal government agencies and courts play roles in the system of legal remedies for victims of sexual harassment. Seek the advice of a knowledgeable employment attorney to understand what options you have to report workplace sexual harassment against you or your coworkers and for representation in lawsuit or administrative complaint seeking damages for sexual harassment.

With offices in Milwaukee, Madison and the Chicago Metro area, the employment lawyers of Fox & Fox, S.C., represent victims of workplace sexual harassment under federal, Wisconsin and Illinois law.