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Is unwelcome sexual behavior workplace harassment?

Kansas City workers may wonder if the negative behaviors directed at them on the job meet the standards of workplace harassment, particularly when it is of a sexual nature.

Federal employees with the Department of Labor have protections in place to prevent these incidents of harassment, but other workers also are covered under state and federal laws preventing harassment in the workplace.

Sexual harassment may occur in a "quid pro quo" scenario, where a subordinate is subject to employment terms and decisions according to his or her willingness to go along with or reject the sexual advances of a supervisor or boss.

But that is not the only kind of sexual harassment that is illegal in the workplace. A hostile work environment can exist as well. Below are some typical examples of the type of conduct that can create this illegal environment of sexual harassment on the job.

-- Supervisors or co-workers making comments about an employee's physical appearance

-- Employees discussing their sex lives and activities on the job

-- Circulating or posting sexually oriented or pornographic images

-- Telling risqué jokes

-- Touching an employee's body unnecessarily

-- Making indecent gestures or using vulgar or obscene language

-- Initiating hostile physical interactions

Simply overhearing two co-workers telling an off-color joke or story or having a boss tell you, "You look nice today" does not rise to the level of a hostile work environment, even when the incidents are unwelcome. Neither would occasional teasing or cursing by bosses or co-workers. The behaviors must be extensive and harsh enough that a reasonable individual would consider them to be abusive or hostile.

In order to establish that a pattern of this harassing and unwelcome conduct exists, the following elements may be considered:

-- Is the conduct merely offensive or is it designed to humiliate or threaten a worker?

-- How frequently do these hostile incidents occur?

-- Do these unwelcome behaviors have an effect on an employee's job performance?

-- Does the conduct have a bearing on a worker's psychological status or physically threaten him or her with harm?

-- Who is making the unwelcome conduct? Is it a co-worker or a superior?

Those who feel that they are subjected to illegal sexual harassment on the job may decide to take legal action to prevent it.

Source: Department of Labor, "What do I need to know about… Workplace Harassment" accessed Feb. 27, 2015

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