Sexual Harassment / Hostile Work Environment

Sexual harassment is a form of gender discrimination. As a result, sexual harassment that occurs in the workplace violates federal and state laws against gender discrimination, including Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Fair Employment Practices Act (M.G.L. c. 151B), and the Massachusetts Civil Rights Act.

Sexual harassment is unwelcome behavior targeted at an employee because of his or her sex, including:

  • Unwanted advances or unwelcome touching, or inappropriate comments,
  • Requests for sexual favors, or
  • Verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature

There two forms of sexual harassment: (1) quid pro quo, and (2) hostile work environment. Sexual harassment may or may not involve any physical contact. Words alone are typically sufficient to constitute either type of sexual harassment.

Quid pro quo sexual harassment
occurs where submission to or rejection of harassing conduct is used as a basis for employment decisions or is made a condition of employment. As an example, an employee who is terminated for refusing to submit to a supervisor’s advances has suffered quid pro quo sexual harassment.

Hostile work environment sexual harassment occurs when unwelcome sexual conduct unreasonably interferes with an employee’s job performance or creates a hostile, intimidating, or offensive work environment. Under hostile work environment harassment, the harassment need not result in an adverse employment action to be actionable. This form of sexual harassment may include:

  • Repeated requests for sexual favors
  • Demeaning sexual inquiries and vulgarities
  • Offensive or degrading language
  • Sexually offensive, explicit or sexist signs, cartoons, calendars, literature or photographs displayed in plain view

Sexual Harassment: Facts & Figures

Research indicates that nearly half of all working women have experienced some form of workplace harassment in their lifetime. This proportion has remained unchanged since the issue first gained visibility two decades ago. The incidence of sexual harassment is usually higher in workplaces that have traditionally excluded women, including both blue-collar jobs such as the construction trades and white collar professions like medicine.

Beyond the detrimental affect on an employee’s physical and emotional health, it is not uncommon for victims of sexual harassment to suffer substantial financial harm. Employees who are forced to endure harassment often attempt to avoid the workplace by taking unpaid leave, resigning, or transferring to new jobs. In a study involving federal employees, researchers found that workers who were subjected to sexual harassment incurred lost wages totaling $4.4 million over a two-year period.