A full-time employee will spend almost a quarter of their life at their workplace. Given the considerable time spent at work, it is vital that we feel comfortable there.
The victim and the harasser need to understand that sexual harassment in the workplace is unlawful. Therefore, employees must understand what constitutes sexual harassment, and victims should know their rights if confronted with it. Victims have recourse and remedies available, while the harasser could be penalized.
What Is Considered Sexual Harassment in the Workplace?
Sexual harassment is a type of workplace discrimination. Employees and employers are prohibited from harassing workers based on gender and other protected characteristics (like age and sexual orientation). While female employees may be more likely to experience sexual harassment, it is a prevalent problem for both genders throughout all industries.
Examples of Sexual Harassment in the Workplace
Sexual harassment could involve a quid pro quo, or it could involve a hostile environment. Quid pro quo harassment is when a benefit, like a promotion at work, is conditioned on sexual favors or when an adverse action, such as getting fired, is threatened if you refuse a sexual advance. Hostile environment harassment is when you are subject to unwanted harassing conduct based on gender that is severe or pervasive.
In either category, harassment can be verbal, physical, or visual. Verbal harassment includes obscene language or demeaning comments, while unwanted touching is an example of physical harassment. Visual harassment may include displaying pornographic images, cartoons, or drawings. There is no agreed-upon definition of sexual harassment. However, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission makes it clear that the harasser's conduct must be unwelcome in all cases.
The harasser can be:
- The victim's supervisor,
- An agent of the employer,
- A supervisor in another area,
- A co-worker, or
- A non-employee.
The victim does not have to be the person harassed but could be anyone affected by the offensive conduct. In other words, bystanders can feel the effects of sexual harassment (similar to second-hand smoke).
Effects of Sexual Harassment
Often, it is helpful for the victim to inform the harasser directly that the conduct is unwelcome and must stop. The victim should use any employer complaint mechanism or grievance system available. If the harassment continues, there can be severe emotional and physical effects that can be long-lasting.
Emotional Impact of Sexual Harassment
Enduring unwanted behavior can directly affect a person’s emotional well-being. Feelings of anger and helplessness only scratch the surface regarding the emotional impact of sexual harassment. Sexual harassment is a type of trauma. When a victim experiences trauma, there is a slew of psychological side effects, including:
- Sleep disturbances, and
- Loss of concentration.
The victim may also experience feelings of guilt and believe that they were the ones who did something wrong. The victim may feel ashamed because of this. Getting caught in a feedback loop like this also plays out in other parts of their lives.
Physical Impact of Sexual Harassment
Burdensome feelings of unwanted stress can ultimately impact our physical well-being. A victim may experience increased blood pressure, potentially leading to cardiovascular disease. Studies also show that victims of sexual harassment are more likely to suffer from muscle aches, headaches, and fatigue.
A victim may also experience:
- Gastrointestinal distress,
- Weight fluctuation,
- Hormonal imbalances, and
- Sexual problems.
These symptoms may dissipate over time through social support and coping strategies for many people. A victim should seek help from a medical provider before the mental and emotional impact becomes so distressing that it interferes with their work and life.
Long-Term Effects of Sexual Harassment
Sexual harassment does not only impact the victim over the short term. It can also have detrimental effects in the long run. Feelings of self-blame and guilt, for example, become damaging when the feelings lead to mental health struggles, body image issues, and low-self esteem.
The victim may experience higher absenteeism, poor focus, and lowered engagement at work. Further, unnecessary stress, frustration, and embarrassment felt by the victim could interfere with their work performance because of an intimidating, hostile, or offensive work environment. The result is a loss of career opportunities, advancement, training, and even their job, impacting their finances and professional development. On the whole, the loss of work productivity and business success strains the economy and livelihood of all employees.
As the impact of harassment spills into other aspects of life, a victim may demonstrate decreased motivation and a poorer attitude towards relationships and hobbies. Victims often experience decreased enjoyment previously found in recreational activities while personal relationships with partners, children, and other family members suffer.
Standing up to the abuse can empower the victim and lessen the emotional and financial long-term effects of sexual harassment.
Effects of Failing to Report Sexual Harassment
It’s estimated that over 50% of sexual harassment victims, do not report such incidents to their supervisors. Women, in particular, do not report sexual harassment for fear of retaliation and being ignored or shunned. In general, a victim may not report out of fear of termination, discomfort discussing personal information, being seen as a troublemaker, or believing that nothing can be done.
As a result, most workplaces are unaware of the levels of sexual harassment and sexual assault that their employees experience. Thus, victims experiencing the effects of sexual harassment may suffer in silence.
A victim of sexual harassment may ultimately want to speak out against their abuser, but others must speak up. Both victims and their supporters must understand that speaking up may help the healing process.
An Employment Attorney Can Help
Being familiar with company policies and the proper channels to report misconduct is the first step in confronting the abuser. Any employee who believes they were the victim of sexual harassment at work may be entitled to back-pay, promotion, reinstatement, or other damages, which can be pursued by filing a New Jersey sexual harassment claim against the employer. At O'Connor, Parsons, Lane & Noble, we are experienced employment law attorneys who understand the unique challenges sexual harassment victims face. We were voted one of the Best Law Firms in the county by U.S. World News in 2020 so you can be sure your case is in good hands. Call us today at 908-373-5931.