Recognizing Sexual Harassment in the Workplace


(Last Updated On: February 22, 2024)

sexual harassment photo of man and woman

It is critical for employees and employers alike to have a clear understanding of what constitutes sexual harassment in the workplace in Massachusetts and to know about rights and responsibilities under federal and state law. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 is a federal law that prohibits sexual harassment in the workplace, and the Massachusetts Fair Employment Practices Act (FEPA) is a state law that specifically prohibits sexual harassment in Massachusetts workplaces. Generally speaking, rights and responsibilities are broader under FEPA, but either law may be applicable to a sexual harassment issue in Boston or Newton, depending on the circumstances. 

How can an employee or employer recognize sexual harassment in the workplace? And what steps should be taken once an employee or an employer does recognize sexual harassment?  

Importance of Recognizing Sexual Harassment for Employees and Employers 

Employees have protections against workplace sexual harassment, and employers have a duty to prevent and address sexual harassment when it occurs. When it comes to recognizing sexual harassment in the workplace, employees should learn about the forms that sexual harassment can take and should know when and how to report sexual harassment once they have recognized it. To recognize and report sexual harassment, an employee may be the target of the harassment, or the employee may be able to report the harassment because it creates a hostile work environment. 

Employers also need to be able to recognize sexual harassment since an employer will be liable for the sexual harassment of an employee by a manager or other employee who has supervisory authority, even if the employer does not know about the sexual harassment, and for sexual harassment committed by other parties in the workplace.  

Recognizing the Forms Sexual Harassment Can Take 

To recognize sexual harassment in the workplace, it is essential to understand that sexual harassment can take two broad forms: 

  • Quid pro quo (or “this for that”); and 
  • Hostile work environment. 

With quid pro quo harassment, an employer or supervisor makes sexual requests from an employee in exchange for a benefit or in exchange for avoiding an adverse work condition. For example, a supervisor might offer an employee extra days off in exchange for performing sexual favors, or a supervisor might require an employee to perform sexual favors in order to avoid a pay cut. In a situation involving quid pro quo harassment, an employer (or a manager or employee with supervisory authority) commits the harassment. 

In a hostile work environment, offensive sexual language or conduct becomes severe enough that it interferes with the ability to work. Offensive sexual language or conduct can take many different forms, including but not limited to sexually suggestive language or images in the workplace, inappropriate touching, offensive comments about a person’s sex, discriminatory language or actions concerning the sex of current or prospective employees, slurs based on a person’s sex or gender (or perceived sex or gender, under Massachusetts law), or subjecting employees of a particular sex or gender to adverse work conditions. In situations involving hostile work environment harassment, the party or parties committing the harassment may be the employer (or a manager or supervisor), a co-worker, or even a customer or client.  

Employers can be liable for both categories of sexual harassment, and they can be liable for quid pro quo harassment even if they do not know it is occurring. When employers learn about hostile work environment harassment, they can be liable if they do not take proper steps to address and remedy the harassment. 

Knowing Common Situations That Constitute Sexual Harassment 

While sexual harassment can occur in the two broad categories discussed above and can take many different forms, it can be helpful to know about common situations that constitute unlawful sexual harassment in order to recognize and report it. The following are common examples of sexual harassment — including quid pro quo and hostile work environment harassment — in the workplace: 

  • Manager offering employee benefits in exchange for sexual favors; 
  • Manager threatening an employee with adverse consequences if they do not comply with requests for sexual favors; 
  • Sexual touching, or “accidental” touching of a sexual nature in the workplace, such as brushing up against a co-worker or employee; 
  • Displaying sexually suggestive images in the workplace; 
  • Use of sexually suggestive language in emails or other communications; 
  • Making jokes about a particular sex or gender or sexual stereotypes; 
  • Commenting on an employee’s body or physical appearance; 
  • Discussing sexual activity in the workplace; 
  • Making sexual gestures; 
  • Asking for dates repeatedly; 
  • Asking questions about anatomy or sexual orientation; or 
  • Making derogatory comments about a particular sex or gender. 

Recognizing harassment is often just one important step of many. Employees have protections under federal and state law against sexual harassment, and employers have responsibilities they must comply with. 

Contact a Boston Employment Lawyer Today 

If you have questions about your rights as an employee or responsibilities as an employer when it comes to recognizing, reporting, and handling sexual harassment in the workplace, it is essential to seek legal help. An experienced Boston employment law attorney at our firm can help. Contact Rodman Employment Law today for more information. 

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