Sexual harassment is a form of gender discrimination—the unequal treatment of a person in the workplace “because of sex.” It comes in many forms, including unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, or other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature. Both women and men can be victims. Sexual harassment violates both state and federal law.

Sexual harassment is often addressed in two categories: (1) quid pro quo sexual harassment; and (2) hostile work environment. While some courts have moved away from this distinction, it is still helpful in understanding the types of conduct that may be actionable.

Quid pro quo sexual harassment is extortion for sexual consideration. The Latin phrase means “something for something.” A common example is a supervisor engaging in unwanted sexual conduct or advances based on promises or threats of a change in the target’s status or conditions of employment. Where these imbalances of power exist, the unlawful quid pro quo can be for a perceived benefit (e.g., a promotion, if…) or a threatened adverse action (e.g., you’ll lose your job, unless…). A proposed quid pro quo may be explicit or implicit. 

Hostile work environment sexual harassment refers to an unwelcome sexually objectionable work environment that is so severe or pervasive as to affect the terms or conditions of employment. Courts have said that such harassment “injects the most demeaning sexual stereotypes into the general work environment” and “unfairly handicaps an employee against whom it is directed in his or her work performance” creating “a barrier to sexual equality in the workplace.” A single, isolated incident may be so severe as to create a hostile work environment. Likewise, a series of offensive comments or actions, viewed collectively, may create a hostile work environment.

People experiencing sexual harassment are often worried about speaking out and go to great lengths to avoid a confrontation—downplaying the situation or laughing it off. After all, rejecting unwanted sexual advances or complaining about a sexually charged work environment can itself lead to retaliation. The fact that this kind of retaliation is unlawful often does not make standing up any easier. If you are confused or fearful about how to confront sexual harassment in the workplace, you don’t have go it alone. You may want to speak with an experienced employment lawyer who can help you understand your rights and your employer’s duties.