Former New York Governor Andrew Cuomo is one of the more recent additions to the list of powerful people accused of sexual harassment. In just the first year following the start of #MeToo, more than 425 prominent leaders were publicly accused of sexual misconduct.

Perpetrators of sexual harassment aren’t only men, of course, and those who engage in harassment don’t always target a person of a different gender. Sexual harassment can, and does, take many forms.

The Legal Definition of Sexual Harassment

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) defines sexual harassment as “unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal and physical conduct of a sexual nature” that “affects an individual’s employment, unreasonably interferes with an individual’s work performance or creates an intimidating, hostile or offensive work environment.” Some key points:

  • The victim and harasser don’t have to be of different genders. 
  • The harasser could be an employee’s supervisor (or someone who supervises other employees), a vendor, coworker, or a customer or other non-employee.
  • Anyone affected by the conduct may be a victim; they don’t have to be directly harassed.
  • An employee doesn’t need to lose their job, or their pay or benefits (or a portion of either) to experience sexual harassment.
  • The conduct of the harasser must be unwelcome. 

Dealing With the Definition’s Ambiguity

Even within the EEOC definition of sexual harassment, though, there is plenty of ambiguity. For instance, what does “unwelcome” mean? If one employee eagerly looks forward to breakroom discussions of an episode of Game of Thrones, for instance, in all of its explicit detail, but another employee finds such conversations offensive, has sexual harassment occurred?

The short answer: it could be. Harassment requires both a subjective test (e.g., the person who was harassed believes the behavior to have been offensive), as well as an objective test (a “reasonable person” would have to agree that the behavior was offensive).

Unfortunately, what one person considers to be sexual harassment, another may not. That’s one of the things that can make identifying and responding to sexual harassment in the workplace so challenging. 

Organizations need to ensure they’re being specific with employees and leaders about what sexual harassment is, what the company’s expectations are both in terms of preventing people from engaging in prohibited behaviors and in helping them become allies and advocates for a strong, harassment-free environment. 

It’s important for employees and leaders to know the legal definition of sexual  harassment. But, even more importantly, they need to know practically what this definition means in terms of their actions and behaviors.

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Best Practices for Effective Sexual Harassment Training and Communication

Effective sexual harassment training and communication is a process — not an event. Holding an annual training that simply talks about legal requirements and expectations has not proven to adequately build a strong and supportive workplace culture where employees are free from harassment. 

Instead, training and communications need to be ongoing. In addition, research has found that taking a more proactive approach to training, rather than a punitive one, can yield better results. Instead of positioning employees as potential perpetrators, providing them with information and examples of desired behaviors and aligning them as allies can have a far more positive effect and yield better results. 

EVERFI’s approach to sexual harassment training has “flipped the script,” in essence, to focus more on the healthy majority of your employees who can be powerful bystanders and advocates for building a safe, supportive workplace culture. EVERFI’s training addresses all types of harassment, using realistic examples, and reinforces that harassment can come from many sources, including non-employees. 

All of your employees want to work in an environment free from harassment. Often though, they may not be entirely clear about what exactly workplace sexual harassment looks like. Providing employees with information and examples that go beyond the legal definition of sexual harassment can help them understand what’s expected of them as employees — and active advocates for a harassment-free workplace. 

Disclaimer: This information is not intended as legal advice. Please consult with legal counsel to ensure your organization’s compliance with applicable legal requirements.

Prevent Harassment & Discrimination

Harassment training for the modern workplace can be challenging. EVERFI presents bite-sized content designed with your employees in mind to set the stage for discussing a positive workplace culture.