Sexual Harassment in the Workplace

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If you face unfair or inappropriate treatment in the workplace based on your actual (or perceived) sexual orientation, sexual history, sexual background, or sexual availability, you are a victim of sexual harassment. Sexual harassment, like every other type of harassment that can occur in the workplace, is detrimental not just to the victim but to everybody in the work environment because it perpetuates a toxic workplace culture where harassment is accepted, overlooked, and even encouraged.

What Constitutes Sexual Harassment?

Sexual harassment is any harassment based on an individual’s sex. It does not necessarily have to be “sexual” in nature – making derisive remarks about an entire gender is an act of sexual harassment even if those remarks are about the gender’s work capabilities or personality traits and not anything explicitly sexual.

Sexual harassment can occur between individuals of different sexes as well as individuals of the same sex. Although sexual harassment is typically portrayed as something a man does to a woman, men can be sexually harassed as well. Sexual harassment can happen regardless of the involved parties’ sexual orientations, gender identities, and positions in the company.

Types of Sexual Harassment and Examples

There are two types of sexual harassment: quid pro quo and hostile work environment.

Quid pro quo, Latin for “this for that,” refers to instances where sexual harassment takes the form of a “bargaining tool.” For instance, a supervisor offering favorable treatment in exchange for sexual favors from subordinates.

Other examples of quid pro quo sexual harassment include:

  • Offering to forgive poor performance and bad behavior in the workplace in exchange for sexual contact;
  • Offering raises, promotions, and other perks in exchange for sexual contact;
  • Threatening to terminate employees who do not comply with requests for sexual contact;
  • Subjecting employees who do not comply with sexual advances to harassment; and
  • Punishing employees who do not comply with sexual requests with poor performance reports and demerits.

Hostile work environment sexual harassment does not involve an exchange, but may involve inappropriate requests and sexual advances. It can also involve subjecting employees to inappropriate sexual imagery, invasive questions and remarks about their personal lives, and otherwise offensive sexual behavior. Examples of this type of sexual harassment include:

  • Inappropriate, sexually charged touching;
  • Flirting;
  • Subjecting employees of one gender to specific disciplinary measures or managerial behavior;
  • Making comments about employees’ looks or fashion choices; and
  • The use of sex- or gender-based slurs and derogatory remarks in the workplace.

Massachusetts and Federal Anti-Sexual Harassment Laws

The primary federal law prohibiting sexual harassment in the workplace is Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.  Under Title VII, sexual harassment is considered a form of sex discrimination.

Additionally, the Massachusetts Fair Employment Practices Act (FEPA) prohibits sexual harassment, including harassment based on an employer’s actual or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity, in the workplace.

Benchmark Sexual Harassment Cases

In late 2017, instances of alleged sexual harassment in the federal government and the entertainment industry made headlines across the United States. This slew of sexual harassment cases spurred the #MeToo movement, a social media movement that encouraged individuals to share their personal stories of sexual harassment in an effort to raise awareness of the issue and put a stop to it.

What to Do if you are Sexually Harassed at Work

If you face sexual harassment at work, you have the right to speak up about the treatment you face and take steps to make it stop. This can mean filing a sexual harassment claim with the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination (MCAD) or the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) or filing a discrimination lawsuit against your employer.

When you face sexual harassment at work, you can suffer damages like lost wages due to missing days, increased medical bills from the worsened mental health you suffer from the harassment and, in turn, the worsened physical health the harassment causes, and career setbacks from missed opportunities at work. You can pursue compensation for these damages through a sexual harassment claim.

You can establish your claim through evidence. Gather any evidence you can at work to support your claim, such as copies of messages that you felt were harassing in nature and dated documentation of interpersonal interactions where you felt harassed or sexually manipulated. Keep a record and copies of each document you collect.

If your company has a sexual harassment reporting policy, follow it, document that you have done so, and give us a call.  The evidence you gathered earlier for your interaction with your company, along with documentation of your interaction with your company, are pieces of evidence you will use to support your claim.

Sexual Harassment Links & Resources

General Laws Part I Title XXI Chapter 151B Section 3A – Massachusetts state law mandating that employers promote an office environment without sexual harassment and that they will create a policy against sexual harassment in the workplace meeting guidelines which this law spells out.

2017 Commonwealth of Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination (MCAD) Report – The 2017 edition of this annual report includes accounts of cases involving sexual harassment as well as the results of those allegations. Also notes new initiatives for 2017 related to sexual harassment due to the recent efforts to create awareness of sexual harassment in the workplace.

Code of Federal Regulation Title 29 Part 1604 Section 11 -The Federal Regulation pertaining to Sexual Harassment.

Sexual Harassment as Defined by the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) – This page puts the formal federal law into a more easily consumable format.

EEOC Fact Sheet –  Document published by the EEOC containing facts about sexual harassment. This includes information on dealing with and preventing sexual harassment.

Enforcement Guidance on Vicarious Employer Liability for Unlawful Harassment of Supervisors – This EEOC publication explains the legal background to and ideas behind employers being liable for sexual harassment by a supervisor inflicted on an inferior.

Policy Guidance on Current Issues of Sexual Harassment – Provides guidance for defining sexual harassment and establishing employer liability using past cases.


  • In the 2017 fiscal year, there were 9,614 allegations of sexual harassment filed with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and Fair Employment Practices Agencies (FEPAs) – which are local equivalents to the EEOC – for the entirety of the United States.[1]
  • The number of sexual harassment allegations filed to the EEOC and FEPAs has decreased year-to-year for the last nine fiscal years, and the total decrease from the 2008 fiscal year to the 2017 fiscal year is 4,316 allegations.[2]
  • During the 2017 fiscal year, 16.5% of sexual harassment allegations filed to the EEOC were filed by males.[3]
  • Resolution other than litigation for allegations made to the EEOC resulted in a total of $46.3 Million in monetary benefits to the harassed party.[4]
  • The EEOC received 39 total allegations of sexual harassment in the state of Massachusetts for the 2017 fiscal year. Of the 39, 32 (82%) were filed by women and 7 (18%) were filed by men.[5]
  • Of the 807 complaints to the MCAD involving sex discrimination, 268 (33%) were for sexual harassment.[6]
  • According to a nationwide telephone survey of 1,415 self-identified United States registered voters conducted by Quinnipiac University[7]:
    • 60% of women polled have experienced sexual harassment.
    • 69% of the women which have been harassed say the incident occurred in the workplace.
    • 20% of men polled say they have been sexually harassed.
    • Overall, 64% of individuals polled know someone who has been sexually harassed and 30% know an individual who has sexually harassed another individual.

[1] https://www1.eeoc.gov//eeoc/statistics/enforcement/sexual_harassment_fepas_by_state.cfm?renderforprint=1

[2] https://www1.eeoc.gov//eeoc/statistics/enforcement/sexual_harassment_fepas_by_state.cfm?renderforprint=1

[3] https://www.eeoc.gov/eeoc/statistics/enforcement/sexual_harassment_new.cfm

[4] https://www.eeoc.gov/eeoc/statistics/enforcement/sexual_harassment_new.cfm

[5] https://www1.eeoc.gov//eeoc/statistics/enforcement/sexual_harassment_fepas_by_state.cfm?renderforprint=1

[6] https://www.mass.gov/files/documents/2018/04/06/2017-mcad-annual-report-4-1-2018.pdf

[7] https://poll.qu.edu/national/release-detail?ReleaseID=2502

Work with an Experienced Boston Employment Lawyer

If you face sexual harassment at work, do not allow it to continue.  Contact the team at Rodman Employment Law at 617.820.5250 today to set up a consultation.

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