Crossing the Line: When Does Flirting Become Sexual Harassment?

Sexual harassment in the workplace has long been an issue. Until a few decades ago, this widespread problem wasn’t widely reported or even recognized, but Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 began turning the tide in favour of victims. In spite of those changing laws and regulations, the first sexual harassment cases didn’t make their way into the nation’s courtrooms until several years later. It would be almost another decade before the Supreme Court became involved in such matters.

Bringing the Situation into Perspective

According to a writeup released last year by a non-profit media organization, National Public Radio, 81 per cent of women and 43 per cent of men have been victims of some form of sexual harassment during their lifetimes. Further studies indicate an estimated 90 per cent of workplace-based cases go unreported due to fear of unfair judgement, retaliation and other negative repercussions.

Where Is the Line between Sexual Harassment and Flirting?

Sexual harassment is defined as “Behaviour characterized by the making of unwelcome and inappropriate sexual remarks or physical advances in a workplace or other professional or social situation”. Of course, this leaves plenty of room for interpretation. By law, some examples of sexual harassment are:

  • Unwanted sexual advances
  • Unwelcome comments regarding a person’s appearance
  •  Inappropriate touching
  • Sending suggestive texts or emails
  • Making lewd gestures
  •  Viewing vulgar photos or videos in the presence of others
  • Offering promotions or advancements in return for dates or sexual favours
  • Bypassing a qualified employee for promotions because of his or her appearance
  • Threatening a person’s employment status if he or she doesn’t provide certain favours or overlook various forms of harassment
  •  Carrying on offensive conversations in the presence of coworkers

Having said all that, isolated incidents don’t generally qualify as sexual harassment. At the same time, simply patting someone on the back or telling a person he or she looks nice today isn’t grounds for a lawsuit. In truth, making occasional offhand comments, randomly teasing someone about his or her appearance or even asking a coworker or employee out on a date isn’t considered sexual harassment.

What Constitutes Sexual Harassment?

In order to be considered a solid sexual harassment case, certain elements have to be in place. According to the United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, unwanted behaviours and actions must be so continual and severe they create a hostile work environment or negative impacts for the victim. Factors workplace harassment attorneys must establish in cases like these include:

· Context: How did the offensive or threatening behaviour come about?

· Frequency: Was this a one-time occurrence, or is it an ongoing situation?

· Severity: Were these lighthearted, potentially misunderstood gestures and actions, or were they explicit and innately harmful?

· Victim’s Conduct: Did the victim willingly participate in the incidents in question only to decide later on they were problematic?

· Resolution Attempts: Did the victim ask the perpetrator to stop or make his or her feelings about the situation known? Was the problem reported within the workplace at any time?

Based on information from the EEOC, certain other circumstances are also considered when determining the outcome of a case. Standard regulations typically apply in businesses with 15 employees or more, and the type of company in which the alleged harassment took place also comes into play.

Bottom Line

While sexual harassment in the workplace is a very real and continually growing issue, not all instances qualify as outright persecution. Numerous modifications have been made to Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act over the years to accommodate changes in workplaces, technology and society as a whole. These revisions are designed to better protect victims of harassment as well as the accused and their employers. If you believe you’re being victimized, don’t hesitate to reach out for help.

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