Sexual harassment is the most commonly reported type of workplace discrimination in the United States, affecting one in every four women in the workplace. In fact, according to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), approximately $52.3 million in damages were awarded in 2011 as a result of sexual harassment claims.

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It’s important to know that blatant sexual advances are not necessary to constitute sexual harassment. If it creates a hostile work environment, unwanted verbal or physical behavior of a sexually suggestive or offensive nature will likely be considered sexual harassment. For example, even making offensive comments about women in general may fall under the category of sexual harassment. Consulting with an attorney if you feel you are being harassed at work is a necessary step if you plan to go forward with your case.

Examples of sexual harassment

A few examples of workplace sexual harassment include:

  • Telling lewd jokes
  • Sexually suggestive or offensive staring
  • Sharing images or videos of a sexually inappropriate nature, such as pornography
  • Making sexual or sexually suggestive comments
  • Inappropriate and unwelcome touching, rubbing, or even purposely brushing up against the victim
  • Sending inappropriate or sexually suggestive emails, texts, or notes
  • Asking inappropriate questions, such as, “How many people have you slept with?” or “Are you gay or straight?”

The above are just a few examples. The EEOC is the agency tasked with enforcing regulations and laws surrounding all types of discrimination. The EEOC holds that conduct is deemed harassment when it “unreasonably interferes with an individual’s work performance” or results in an “intimidating, hostile or offensive working environment.”

Is it harmless, or is it harassment?

Federal law protects workers from unlawful discrimination at work, including sexual harassment. The law does not, however, prohibit isolated incidents that are not deemed particularly serious. For example, if an employee flirts with another employee because he thinks she is interested, this is not sexual harassment. If, however, he continues to make flirtatious comments, despite her requests that he stop, his comments could be considered sexual harassment.

Not all workplace misconduct constitutes harassment. In fact, the EEOC states that sexual “flirtation or innuendo, even vulgar language that is trivial or merely annoying, would probably not establish a hostile environment.”

In an effort to ensure that “Title VII does not serve ‘as a vehicle for vindicating the petty slights suffered by the hypersensitive,’” the EEOC analyzes each case, comparing the victim’s reaction to a “reasonable person’s reaction to a similar environment under a similar or like circumstance.”

EEOC guidelines also state that “unless the conduct is quite severe, a single incident or isolated incidents of offensive sexual conduct or remarks generally do not create an abusive environment.”

This being said, don’t be afraid to come forward with a complaint if you truly feel you are being harassed. The EEOC does take into consideration the victim’s perspective when determining whether an environment is hostile. For example, the agency’s policy guidelines state that “a workplace in which sexual slurs, displays of ‘girlie’ pictures, and other offensive conduct abound can constitute a hostile work environment even if many people deem it to be harmless or insignificant.”

Zero tolerance

North Carolina and several other states are considering “zero tolerance” legislation with regard to "sexual harassment, abuse, misconduct, gender bias, and all other forms of discrimination in the workplace.” Zero tolerance legislation would specifically prohibit any kind of sex-based discrimination in the workplace, including unwanted sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, inappropriate touching, and the display or distribution of sexually suggestive photos, emails, or jokes.

While sexual harassment and discrimination have been against federal law since 1964, the push for zero tolerance aims to encourage women to speak up against inappropriate behavior, armed with the knowledge that their claims will be taken seriously.

"I think one of the things that is propelling this is that women’s stories are resonating with the general public. We see public figures, government officials who are finally being held accountable for their poor behavior,” said Rep. Deb Butler of Wilmington, North Carolina.

New York has also put forward a zero-tolerance approach to workplace sexual harassment. These newer and more aggressive policies come on the heels of a tumultuous year for men previously shielded from the consequences of their harassment, as women, emboldened by the #MeToo movement, ousted several of them from positions of power.

Seek legal counsel

If you feel that you have been the victim of workplace sexual harassment, you should report the incident to your employer’s human resources department immediately. If they are unable, or unwilling, to resolve the issue, an experienced employment law attorney can help you determine how to proceed. In order to protect your rights and substantiate your claim, there are certain steps that should be followed, including reporting the harassment to your employer’s human resources department and keeping detailed records of any incidents.

An experienced workplace sexual harassment lawyer can help you if you feel that your rights have been violated.

“The second you feel you are discriminated against or sexually harassed, consult an attorney immediately because the attorney can advise you on at what point you would be allowed to quit pursuant to constructive termination,” says Derek T. Smith, an attorney with the Derek Smith Law Group who has 24 years of experience trying sexual harassment cases. “An attorney would also be able to advise you as to what your duties are with respect to complaining about the sexual harassment, and giving the attorney the chance to remedy the situation, if they’re even entitled to such an opportunity.”

If you are unsure whether the conditions you are facing at work constitute harassment, Smith suggests looking over the EEOC website. Further, you should take stock of your own feelings on the subject: Are you afraid to go to work? Do you avoid certain people or situations in a way that is damaging to your performance?

“Sexual harassment or discriminatory harassment is held to an objective and subjective standard,” Smith says. “So how will you know? If you feel offended. If you feel that you are really not looking forward to going to work anymore because you have to be subjected to that harassment or discrimination. That’s something that you don’t have to live with.”