Sexual harassment has been in the headlines again recently. While the pervasiveness of harassment is becoming more widely publicized, it comes as no surprise to me. I started my practice in 2002 and, over the years, have represented several women who were victims of harassment. There isn’t an industry that has been immune. So even with all of the awareness out there, sexual harassment is still a problem.
- Silicon Valley is famous for its hard-working, hard-playing, free-wheeling business culture but it’s become clear for many high-tech companies, especially Uber, sexual harassment was an accepted part of that culture.
- Hollywood’s “casting couch” has long been a subject of jokes and rumors but this year one of Hollywood’s major players, Harvey Weinstein, suffered a hard and fast fall after more than thirty women came forward with accusations of sexual harassment and abuse. Weinstein was eventually fired from his own company.
- State legislatures are coming under scrutiny. From coast to coast, allegations by female employees of sexual harassment by those voted into office have made the news. California’s system of investigating sexual harassment of legislators may have led to more accusers than harassers being punished. Anonymous, published complaints of sexual harassment have led to calls for a major overhaul in how the Massachusetts legislature handles these complaints.
For the perpetrator, sexual harassment is an exercise of power over someone they feel they can control. The harasser may be looking for sexual gratification or may simply enjoy degrading or debasing another person. The victim may comply with the harasser or not report the incident out of fear of retaliation including loss of much needed employment.
When It Becomes Illegal
Not everything said or done in the workplace that makes a person uncomfortable constitutes sexual harassment under federal and state laws. Teasing, offhand comments and other isolated incidents that are neither repetitive nor serious do not make a hostile work environment in the legal sense.
Sexual harassment becomes illegal when it is unwelcome and,
- Becomes so frequent or severe that it creates a hostile or offensive work environment, or
- Results in an adverse employment decision (like being fired or demoted) because of a refusal to comply.
In the Harvey Weinstein case, for example, it was reported that young female actresses’ careers often depended on whether they yielded to his demands. This type of harassment, conditioning another’s employment upon acquiescence to sexual demands or retaliating against the employee for refusing to go along, is so repugnant, proof of an employer’s awareness of it often leads to six and seven figure verdicts. While proving a hostile work environment from repetitive behavior like jokes and teasing is often more challenging, juries will not hesitate to send a message to employers in these cases as well. Although sexual harassment cases most often involve men harassing women, they can arise in female/male and same sex cases also. Does anyone recall the 1994 movie Disclosure featuring Michael Douglas and Demi Moore?
Sexual harassment harms its victims and can poison the work environment. Although progress has been made against sexual harassment, recent events demonstrate we obviously have a long way to go. Based on these headlines, obviously, sexual harassment is still a problem.
If you feel you have been a victim of sexual harassment, please call Scott Fegley of the Fegley Law Firm. Mr. Fegley will confidentially discuss your situation with you and will help you stop the harassment and protect your career.