Sexual Harassment in Today’s Workplace

What should small business owners do once they receive a sexual harassment complaint?


As we all have seen, sexual harassment has dominated the news for months. 

There is no indication that the focus on sexual harassment will abate any time soon, and employers of all sizes in all industries should make sure that they are prepared to investigate and address sexual harassment complaints, should they arise.

What Is Sexual Harassment?

Sexual harassment can be defined as unwelcome sexual conduct.  Workplace sexual harassment generally falls into one of two categories:  quid pro quo harassment and hostile work environment harassment.

Quid pro quo (or “something for something”) sexual harassment occurs when a sexual favor is linked to a grant or denial of job benefits.  Many of the recent news reports have described quid pro quo situations where an employee is explicitly or implicitly promised advancement or favorable exposure in the employee’s field by someone who has power over the employee’s career if he or she engages in sexual acts. 

Hostile work environment sexual harassment is established when an employee can show that sexual speech or conduct was so severe or pervasive that it created an offensive work environment or unreasonably interfered with the employee’s work performance. 

This type of sexual harassment does not necessarily involve an employment action like a termination or demotion.  Many jurisdictions allow employees to make hostile environment harassment claims based on other protected characteristics in addition to sex, such as race, religion, or ethnicity.

What Can Employers Do To Avoid Sexual Harassment Claims?

Here are the two most important steps an employer can take to help protect employees from sexual harassment and minimize the likelihood of lawsuits:

Create and distribute a written policy prohibiting harassment. 

All employers should have a clearly-worded policy prohibiting conduct that could lead to sexual harassment. 

Employers should make sure that all employees have reviewed the policy and have had an opportunity to ask questions about it.  Among other things, the policy should include an explanation of sexual harassment, information about how employees can report conduct they think might be a violation of the policy, and a statement that employees will not be retaliated against for reporting potential violations of the policy.

Provide training on sexual harassment and the employer’s policy prohibiting harassment

Training should explain prohibited conduct and provide specific examples. 

Some conduct that can lead to hostile environment claims is not intuitive; for example, the use of a particular slang word on a factory floor or an employee’s posting of a particular type of photo in her cubicle.  Some jurisdictions like California require supervisors and managers to receive this training. 

Employers may want to consider providing sexual harassment training to all employees. 

Employees more than ever are cognizant of sexual harassment issues in their environment, and educating employees and supervisors on sexual harassment is critical to prevention.

Next page- If an employee complains of harassment, don’t ignore it take theses 4 steps.

Emma Luevano
Emma Luevano
Emma Luevano is a regular contributor to on legal issues relevant to small and medium business. She is a partner at the law firm Mitchell Silberberg & Knupp LLP ( who advises and represents management on labor and employment matters, including sexual harassment and other forms of discrimination, public policy violations, wrongful termination, class action wage and hour issues,and retaliation.

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