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Can Sexual Harassment Be Verbal?

Published on Aug 26, 2022 at 5:05 pm in Environmental Law.

Can Sexual Harassment Be Verbal?
Workplace sexual harassment is more common than many people think. It also comes in multiple forms. While most people associate sexual harassment with sexual advances and physical acts like inappropriate touching and gestures, one of the most common forms of sexual harassment as well as the most pervasive is verbal.

Verbal sexual harassment in a work environment can be defined as repeated and continuous comments and communicative behaviors (such as written behaviors like leaving notes or sending emails or chat messages) of a sexual nature or that are offensive towards a person’s gender. These comments can be said to the person directly, near them, or about them. Sexual harassment can happen to anyone—regardless of their gender identity.

Types and Examples of Verbal Sexual Harassment

Workplace sexual harassment, including verbal harassment, is legally broken down into two different categories:

  • Quid Pro Quo. In this type of harassment, an employer expresses or implies that an employee’s job is dependent on submitting to the unwanted sexual advances. An example would be when a boss demands sexual favors for an employee to keep their job.
  • Hostile Environment. In this type of harassment, the victim’s job isn’t on the line, but the work environment is made hostile due to the acts of harassment or sexual misconduct. The acts of misconduct don’t necessarily have to target a specific individual and can take the form of repeated derogatory language or images, for example, but must only target one gender.

One crucial thing to note about verbal sexual harassment is that in order to take legal action against the harasser, multiple verbal incidents will generally have needed to occur. A single, isolated incident may not be enough to legally constitute as sexual harassment, unless it’s an extremely serious quid pro quo incident like a boss demanding sexual favors from an employee and threatening to fire them.

Essentially, a victim must have to endure or witness repeated misconduct and harassment to the effect that it impacts their ability to perform their job at their place of employment.

Examples of verbal sexual harassment in the workplace include:

  • Repeated offensive sexual jokes
  • Repeated sexual innuendos or questions
  • Repeated inquiries about the sexual preferences or history of a colleague
  • Repeated derogatory or sexist comments about a certain gender or a gender’s stereotypes, including comments about a person’s clothing, body, or behaviors
  • Unwanted sexual advances, including catcalls and lewd noises
  • Excessive unwanted flirting
  • Requests for sexual favors
  • Discussing one’s sex life and/or fantasies
  • Telling lies or spreading rumors about someone’s sex life
  • Suggestive or obscene work emails or chat messages sent through company-based platforms

The characteristics of a hostile work environment and what defines a workplace that’s made hostile due to repeated instances of verbal sexual harassment will vary based on the situation and the case as a whole, but by definition, if someone feels intimidated or afraid at their job or is otherwise unable to perform their work duties as they normally would due to what is happening, then the work environment can often be defined as hostile.

What Can Be Done About Verbal Sexual Harassment?

According to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), at least 25% of women have experienced sexual harassment in the workplace. Many instances of harassment unfortunately go unreported. In 2016, it was estimated that 75% of sexual harassment victims experienced some sort of retaliation when they reported an incident. Given this estimate, it’s no surprise that many victims fear reporting sexual harassment.

Businesses have a legal responsibility to protect their workers from discrimination, however—including acts of sexual harassment. Title VII of the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964 states that sexual harassment is labeled as a form of discrimination. If your workplace isn’t doing everything they should to stop sexual harassment in its tracks, legal recourse may be an option.

Employee conduct matters. Companies that let ignore instances of sexual harassment or try and retaliate against those who report instances are not only creating a hostile work environment for all employees, they’re also committing an illegal act.

By law, workplaces are required to have anti-discrimination policies in place which include policies on sexual harassment. If you’re in a situation where you are being harassed or know someone who is, the first thing you should do is familiarize yourself with your workplace’s policies and find out how to report the instances of harassment. The steps for reporting vary between workplaces, but most will have you bring your complaint to your supervisor or your HR representative.

When you file your complaint, you may wish to bring a witness with you who can support your claim. This will strengthen your claim as well as ensure someone is there in case retaliation of some kind does occur. It’s also important to note that in most workplaces, verbal sexual harassment can be reported by someone who isn’t the victim. If you are the victim and fear retaliation, a witness can also be helpful in this regard.

If the person or people who conducted the harassment have said discriminatory things toward other coworkers, it may also be a good idea to speak to other potential victims and approach HR or a supervisor as a group. Never pressure coworkers to share their stories if they are not comfortable doing so, however. An employer who receives multiple complaints is more likely to act on your complaints quickly.

Get Help with a Sexual Harassment Claim

If you’re in a situation where you have reported instances of sexual harassment to your company’s HR department or your supervisor and fear retaliation or have had your claims refuted or ignored, it may be time to take legal action. If you work or reside in Arkansas, don’t hesitate to reach out to the employment lawyers at McMath Woods P.A. to learn how we may be able to help you feel safe at your workplace and stop instances of discrimination.

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