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Recognizing the subtler forms of sexual harassment

Most people think they'd know if they were being sexually harassed at work or if they saw someone else being harassed. When the behavior involves physical or verbal sexual advances or blatant requests for sexual favors, it's obvious. However, there are subtler behaviors that can qualify as sexual harassment. Even derogatory or demeaning comments about a person's gender can be considered sexual harassment.

For harassment to be considered illegal, however, it must be so severe or frequent that it creates a hostile work environment or results in a victim's demotion or termination. What one person might consider sexual harassment, another may see as no big deal. However, courts will generally consider what a "reasonable person" would consider harassment.

You may be able to put an end to inappropriate behavior before it becomes harassment if you can recognize that behavior and successfully get the perpetrator to stop or seek the assistance of a manager or human resources professional who can intervene on your behalf.

One author who has written about sexual harassment lists some scenarios that are early warning signs of a potentially larger sexual harassment issue. These include a colleague, boss or other person in the workplace:

  • Making comments about your appearance or body that make you feel uncomfortable. There's a big difference between someone saying they like your dress and saying that a dress "really shows off your curves."
  • Asking you about your sex life or sharing information about their own
  • Sharing suggestive images, videos or song lyrics
  • Standing uncomfortably close

The author says, "The best guideline is the 'uh-oh' feeling. You think the person knows they are making you uncomfortable and is enjoying that power over you."

A further sign of trouble is if you ask the person to stop the behavior and they don't or if you feel you don't have any power to stop it. The same is true if you seek help from someone with the authority to end it and they don't or just tell you to try to avoid your harasser.

Are you enduring sexual harassment that is making your workplace feel like a hostile work environment, and no attempts to end it have worked? Have you spoken up and been penalized as a result -- left off projects, excluded from important meetings, demoted or even fired? It may be worthwhile to learn about your legal options.

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It can be hard to take the first steps in these cases when your livelihood is at stake, but know that you have rights available to you. Let us help you determine what you can do to bring an end to your employer's unlawful behavior.