Defining Sexual Harassment
While sexual harassment has been in the news extensively over the last year, confusion still abounds.
The problem stems from the fact that what is defined as sexual harassment can vary from one situation to another, from one person to another. Defining one employee’s behavior as sexual harassment of another must be done on a case-by-case, individual base using criteria that can be ambiguous.
It is important to understand what sexual harassment is for three reasons:
- To be able to recognize it
- To be able to avoid it
- To be able to do something about it.
A common-sense definition is: deliberate and or repeated sexual or sex-based behavior (because of the person’s sex) which is unwelcome, not asked for, and not returned.
- It begins with some form of sexual behavior or it occurs because of the person’s sex.
- It can be deliberate, meaning it is not an accident, it is with intent.
- It can be deliberate, but it only happened once.
- It can be deliberate and repeated.
- It can be, unintentional, but it is repeated and because it is repeated it becomes problematic.
This definition will in most cases help you distinguish between what is appropriate, what is inappropriate and what is illegal and perhaps criminal.
All harassment is not equal
There are some forms of sexual behavior that are so graphic and offensive that the first time they occur, they are considered deliberate and illegal. There are other forms of behavior that must be repeated over and over again before they become illegal harassment. Both are serious and damaging.
If we take this definition and turn it into questions, we can begin to dissect an incident.
For example, when considering problematic workplace behavior that might be sexual harassment ask these questions:
- Was the behavior in the incident sexual or sex-based?
- Was the behavior deliberate, intentional?
- Was the behavior deliberate and repeated?
- Was the behavior not deliberate but repeated?
- Was the behavior welcomed and returned?
As we hear about, experience, or witness problematic behavior at work this simple, easy definition is invaluable.