Frequently asked questions about sexual harassment

by Fred Cohen

This information is used and updated by our facilitators to reflect the questions and answers we most frequently encounter about sexual harassment in our facilitated scenario games on the subject. It is also used as an information sheet for players to help them resolve issues during some phases of some games. The presentation is designed to point out the issues we encounter. It is not intended to be comprehensive, nor is it authoritative. In fact, it is our belief that no authoritative source exists on this area and that the issues and the interpretation of the courts are still too young to be definitive. Furthermore, this particular area is full of "shades of gray" where different people, judges, and juries, would come up with different answers. We try to reflect this in our document.

Q: What is the (US) Legal Definition of Sexual Harassment?

Legally speaking, in the United States, there are two types of sexual harassment:

From a standpoint of business decorum and acceptable community norms, understanding of sexual harassment varies greatly with location and background, especially in the international arena.

Q: What is definitely acceptable and definitely not acceptable and what are the gray areas?

The heart of the question most people really want answered it what can they do to make certain that they don't break the rules. We hope that the listing below is helpful:

 Probably acceptable

 Gray area

 Likely to be trouble
Never bringing up anything of a sexual nature in the work environment. Bringing up issues of a sexual nature which you think are not offensive. Bringing up issues of a sexual nature which you think may be offensive to a radical activist.
Never touching anyone in the workplace except to assist in a dire emergency or to shake hands with customers or vendors when they enter or leave meetings. Shaking hands differently with women than men or with particular individuals, touching anybody in any way other than shaking hands, or touching anyone's property. Touching anyone in genital areas, petting of any sort, touching anything other than hands when extended toward you, intentionally touching anyone, kissing, etc.
Wearing business clothes conservatively suited to your position and duties of your job in your work environment. Wearing clothes that are substantially more revealing than the clothes worn by the average worker in a similar job at your company. Wearing clothes that are substantially more revealing than other workers of similar position and duties in your work environment.
Competing with your peers over success in business issues by using your skills, wits, knowledge, and hard work to get ahead of them. Using non-work-suited scents, makeup, clothing, appearances, intonations of voice, sensuality, or sexual references to get ahead. Having sex with people to get ahead, telling people how appealing they are in order to enamor yourself to them, or other fierce sexually-relate competitive practices.
Looking people in the eye when they talk to you, smiling most of the time, and occasionally looking at eye level toward other people in your workspace or hallways, Looking at other parts of people when you are talking to them, looking at people more than briefly as they walk away from you, going out of your way to watch others. Staring at people, looking at erogenous zones more than very briefly, leering, gawking, staring at someone with your mouth hanging opened, looking under peoples' clothing, etc.
Dating, having sex, or any other consentual behavior with your significant other away from the office in private and on your own time. Having intimate conversations with someone at work or engaging in non-business relationships, even with your significant other, at the office. Engaging in physical intimacy at work, in any area on corporate property, or in your car in the parking lot at work. Kissing, hugging, or petting at work.
Helping people at work who ask for your help when you have time and knowledge appropriate to provide that help and do so with others in similar circumstances. Helping a particular individual more than others, in areas where you don't have proper knowledge or expertise, or to the exclusion of helping others with similar requirements. Helping someone at work who is attractive to you as a way to get close to them and with the intention of using this assistance as a basis for forming a more intimate relationship.
Assigning employee work duties to similar employees through a random lottery, a regular rotation, based on time in service, or other published and clearly fair means. Assigning work to similar employees in a secretive or poorly controlled way, on the basis of friendship, likability, appearance, or based on other non-quantified selection methods. Assigning the most lucrative, high-profile, or best accounts, customers, jobs, locations, etc. to select employees based on what appears to other employees as non-business or non-fair basis.
Never supervising or being supervised by, either directly or indirectly, anyone who you have had or are having a friendship or relationship of any sort with. Never directly supervising or being directly supervised by anyone who you have had or are having a friendship or relationship of any sort with. Having a relationship with your employee or supervisor. Using any sort of sexual relationship with another as a basis for hiring, firing, promoting, or not promoting them or others.
Never allowing sex, sexual orientation, attractiveness, or other sexually related issues or stereotypes play any role in business decisions. Assigning or not assigning people to work with others based on perceptions about compatibility as it relates to sexual issues. Making any decision about jobs or work based on sexual stereotypes about an individual or a group you think or know they may be a member of.

What should I do if I think I am being harassed?

A lot of people go by the credo that if you think you are being harassed, you probably are. But it's not always that simple. In some cases, there may be a basis for the behavior you think of as harassment that would convince you that it's not harassment at all. People also have a range of reactions at their disposal and organizations may advise employees to try different strategies. According to most legal references we have seen, only the strategies marked as [identified] are within the range of options that should be suggested by companies for their employees. The range of actions that are usually considered are these: