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Who is the Victim? Continued Discussions on Sexual Harassment


from Toni Ahl, our partner at EEO Advantage

Some crimes are said to be victimless. Although sexual harassment is not a crime in most instances, there is always a victim. I think sometimes we fail to recognize all of the victims of sexual harassment. Let’s consider some of the options.

It’s easy for us to identify the victim of sexual harassment as the person who was targeted by the actions. There is no question that a victim of sexual harassment can be physically and/or psychologically harmed. When we think about sexual harassment, many of us think about the “off color” joke or comment. However sexual assault is a severe form of sexual harassment. Of course, there are many types of sexual harassment between the two extremes.

Under the theory of hostile work environment, we consider whether the conduct is severe or pervasive. The more severe the conduct, the less often it must occur to rise to the level of harassment. Conversely, the less severe the conduct, the more often it must occur to rise to the level of harassment. As an example, consider one co-worker asking another co-worker out. Is that harassment? In all likelihood, the answer is no. If the first employee continues to press for a date and becomes threatening and intimidating, it may become harassment.

The person against whom the action is being taken must find the conduct to be unwelcome. This is the employee’s subjective view. We then consider if a reasonable person would find the conduct offensive. This is the reasonable person standard. We all have different thresholds for certain types of behavior and some people are extremely sensitive. Therefore, the reasonable person standard is applied.

In a hostile work environment claim, the person affected may be a co-worker. Think, for example, of a co-worker who is subjected to hearing other co-workers talk about their sexual exploits. The comments are not aimed toward the person overhearing the comments, but the comments affect that person’s ability to do his/her job. In this type case, we would look at whether the conduct was severe or pervasive.

But, what about the person who is falsely accused of sexual harassment? The consequences of the accusation can profoundly affect the career and/or personal life of the accused. Just imagine being falsely accused and having to try to defend yourself against the allegations. In my career, I saw a few instances when a group of employees banded together and lied about the behavior of another employee. It does not happen often, but does occur. Imagine having to go home and explain to your spouse that you have been fired due to an allegation of sexual harassment. How will that affect your home life? You have no job and have been accused of what could be infidelity. So, falsely accused employees may also be victims. And, what about the families of the falsely accused? Are they victims too? Of course, they are. Raising awareness of all the victims who might be affected could help in determining a course of action to be followed.

I can help you with your training needs related to sexual harassment. The training can be tailored to your business or any particular needs you may have.

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