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Do you know what actions are sexual harassment?

Perhaps one person at your workplace seems to find it amusing to prey on female co-workers. You have long observed his inappropriate comments and gestures, and you may feel that his behaviors cross a line.

But do they meet the definition of sexual harassment?

What happens

Defining sexual harassment is not always straightforward. Sometimes there is a fine line between acceptable behavior and illegal harassment.

For example, someone may make a suggestive comment in an offhand manner, possibly as a joke. This does not meet the guidelines for illegal sexual harassment. If such comments continue and a pattern forms that becomes untenable, you should probably report the behavior to your supervisor or HR department.

What the EEOC says

Sexual harassment comes under the category of sex discrimination in Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The law applies to U.S. businesses with a minimum of 15 employees.

Although it is certainly harassment if someone requests sexual favors or makes unwelcome sexual advances, these are not the only behaviors included by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission's definition. It may also be verbal or physical sexual conduct that affects someone's employment. 

What you can do

Sexual harassment affects more than the specifically targeted individual. Those exposed to the inappropriate gestures and remarks of an insensitive colleague may work in an uncomfortable atmosphere. The EEOC calls this a “hostile or offensive work environment.”

The important next step is for anyone who is aware of the behavior to speak up and bring the unwelcome incidents to the attention of the employer. It is everyone's responsibility to prevent harassment of any kind in the workplace.

You also have a right to file a claim relative to your experience in a hostile work environment. In reviewing your case, the court will consider various factors based on the definition of sexual harassment, including the content, frequency and severity of the inappropriate conduct.

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