One of the more shocking instances happened when I was 15 years old working one of my first jobs as a hostess at a restaurant in Cocoa Beach. The kitchen manager cornered me in the back closet where I’d gone to grab more silverware. He told me to close my eyes so he could brush something off my face. Much to my surprise, when I closed my eyes, he kissed me on the mouth. I pushed him away, laughed it off, and went back to work. I was too embarrassed to tell anyone about it at the time and began to think things like that were normal – just the price you had to pay for being an attractive young woman in a workplace. I now love myself enough to know how wrong sexual harassment and sexual objectification is, and as an employment lawyer, I have the skills and knowledge to protect my rights.
But as I saw my social media feeds flood with “me too” stories over the last few days, it occurred to me that many people do not understand just how high the legal bar is for proving sexual harassment in the workplace. There are two types of sexual harassment claims: “quid pro quo” and “hostile work environment.” Quid pro quo claims are easier to spot: a manager demands some form of sexual favor in exchange for some benefit (or avoidance of some detriment). It’s the hostile work environment claims that are much more difficult to prove. One crude comment or even a series of crude comments is generally not enough, even though the comments may have been highly offensive. The conduct must be sufficiently severe or pervasive to alter the terms and conditions of employment and create an abusive working relationship. This is a highly fact-intensive inquiry, and employees are often surprised to find how much unprofessional or inappropriate behavior the law permits.
It is also important to distinguish between workplace sexual harassment claims and various criminal offenses relating to sexual assault and unwanted touching. Sexual harassment isn’t always a criminal offense, and vice versa. And many, many offensive occurrences or experiences, while morally wrong, are neither criminally nor civilly actionable.
If you believe you have been subjected to unlawful sexual harassment, call me. If you are a company currently facing or wanting to avoid sexual harassment claims, call me. Having been on both sides of these types of issues, I am uniquely positioned to help. 321-345-0145; firstname.lastname@example.org.