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Understanding the 2 Types of Sexual Harassment in the Workplace

Creating a safe, healthy environment for team members is a top priority for business leaders. Since fiscal year 2010, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has received an average of over 25,000 workplace harassment complaints.

The best defense against harassment in the workplace is preventing the misconduct altogether; for this, education is key. Employees need to understand the company’s policies on the topic, from reporting allegations to the differences between “harassment” and “sexual harassment.”

To remain proactive, many companies are reviewing such policies, including required anti-harassment training.

What is harassment?

Harassment is a form of employment discrimination that violates state and federal laws. Unwelcome misconduct based on certain protected characteristics is considered harassment.

Federal laws protecting against harassment include:

  • Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964
  • Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967
  • Americans With Disabilities Act of 1990
  • Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act of 2008

These laws protect employees from unwelcomed conduct based on a person’s race, color, religion, sex, national origin, age, disability or genetic information. However, certain unwelcomed conduct does not rise to the level of harassment; minor insults, irritations and isolated occurrences — unless extremely serious — generally will not be considered unlawful.

What is workplace sexual harassment?

The EEOC defines sexual harassment as follows:

“Unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature constitute sexual harassment when this conduct explicitly or implicitly affects an individual’s employment, unreasonably interferes with an individual’s work performance, or creates an intimidating, hostile, or offensive work environment.”


How prevalent is sexual harassment in the workplace?

The EEOC reports that between FY 2018 and FY 2021:

  • sexual harassment charges accounted for 27.7% of all harassment charges
  • 27,291 charges alleged sexual harassment, while 98,411 charges alleged harassment under any basis
  • female employees filed 78.2% of sexual harassment charges

Allegations filed with the EEOC rose significantly post-2017. The agency attributed the uptick in reporting to heightened demand resulting from the #MeToo movement.

What are the different types of workplace sexual harassment?

Two types of sexual harassment exist:

1. A hostile work environment

When sexual speech or conduct is so severe and persistent that it creates an intimidating or demeaning work environment, it is considered hostile. Hostile environment sexual harassment could occur if employees at a company repeatedly make sexual jokes or display offensive pictures to co-workers.

2. Quid pro quo

A Latin phrase meaning “something for something,” quid pro quo sexual harassment involves demanding sexual favors in exchange for a benefit or to avoid punishment in the workplace — for example, a supervisor offering to promote a subordinate employee in exchange for a date.

Is anti-harassment training required?

Although federal law does not have specific anti-harassment or workplace sexual harassment training requirements, the EEOC encourages this practice. Some states, cities and other jurisdictions have passed laws requiring anti-harassment training for private employers.

Currently, six states require sexual harassment training:

  • California
  • Connecticut
  • Delaware
  • Illinois
  • Maine
  • New York

A learning management system — such as Paycom Learning — can assist employers in staying in compliance with anti-harassment training requirements, regardless of employee head count or physical location. Paycom Learning now comes built-in with a basic package of compliance-related training to help businesses of any size implement training consistently and efficiently on a companywide basis.

DISCLAIMER: This blog includes general information about legal issues and developments in the law. Such materials are for informational purposes only and may not reflect the most current legal developments. These informational materials are not intended, and must not be taken, as legal advice on any particular set of facts or circumstances. You need to contact a lawyer licensed in your jurisdiction for advice on specific legal problems.