Identifying Sexual Harassment

Basically, sexual harassment is when someone makes you think you'll get in trouble, lose your job, get a bad grade, or be denied a service unless you give in to sexual advances or put up with sexual remarks or actions.

Sexual harassment is a form of sex discrimination which is a violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission's (EEOC) guidelines define two types of sexual harassment: "quid pro quo" and "hostile environment."

Unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature constitute "quid pro quo" sexual harassment when (1) submission to such conduct is made either explicitly or implicitly a term or condition of an individual's employment or education or (2) submission to or rejection of such conduct by an individual is used as the basis for employment or academic decisions affecting the individual.

Unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature constitute "hostile environment" sexual harassment when such conduct has the purpose or effect of unreasonably interfering with an individual's work performance or education or creating an intimidating, hostile, or offensive working or educational environment.

The central inquiry is whether the conduct "unreasonably interfered with an individual's work performance" or created "an intimidating, hostile, or offensive working environment." The inspector general will look at the following factors to determine whether an environment is hostile:

(1) whether the conduct was verbal or physical or both;
(2) how frequently it was repeated;
(3) whether the conduct was hostile or patently offensive;
(4) whether the alleged harasser was a co-worker or supervisor;
(5) whether others joined in perpetrating the harassment; and
(6) whether the harassment was directed at more than one individual. No one factor controls. An assessment is made based upon the totality of the circumstances.

Sexual conduct becomes unlawful only when it is unwelcome. The challenged conduct must be unwelcome in the sense that the employee did not solicit or incite it and in the sense that the employee regarded the conduct as undesirable or offensive.

When confronted with conflicting evidence as to whether conduct was welcome, the inspector general will look at the record as a whole and at the totality of the circumstances, evaluating each situation on a case-by-case basis. The investigation should determine whether the victim's conduct was consistent, or inconsistent, with his or her assertion that the sexual conduct was unwelcome. 

The victim may be a women or a man. The victim does not have to be of the opposite sex. The victim does not have to be the person harassed but could be anyone affected by the offensive conduct.

The harasser may be a woman or a man. He or she can be the victim's supervisor, an agent of the employer, a supervisor in another area, a coworker, or a non-employee.

It depends. In "quid pro quo" cases, a single sexual advance may constitute harassment if it is linked to the granting or denial of employment or employment benefits. In contrast, unless the conduct is quite severe, a single incident or isolated incidents of offensive sexual conduct or remarks generally do not create a "hostile environment."

A hostile environment claim usually requires a showing of a pattern of offensive conduct. However, a single, unusually severe incident of harassment may be sufficient to constitute a Title VII violation; the more severe the harassment, the less need to show a repetitive series of incidents. This is particularly true when the harassment is physical.

For example, the inspector general will assume that the unwelcome, intentional touching of a charging party's intimate body areas is sufficiently offensive to alter the condition of his/her working environment and constitute a violation of Title VII.

Yes. The inspector general will evaluate the totality of the circumstances to ascertain the nature, frequency, context, and intended target of the remarks. Relevant factors may include:

(1) whether the remarks were hostile and derogatory;
(2) whether the alleged harasser singled out the charging party;
(3) whether the charging party participated in the exchange; and
(4) the relationship between the charging party and the alleged harasser.

Be conscious that your words, jokes, and comments of a sexual nature may hurt or offend others.
Be sensitive that people of other cultures, the opposite sex, and your same sex may interpret your actions differently.
Be proactive by not condoning or ignoring the harassing behavior of others.
Ensure consent by asking for it and by understanding that “no” is often communicated in subtle ways, including verbally and through body language.
Understand that sexual harassment is normally not a mutually agreed upon interaction between two consenting people such as mutual flirtation or a hug between friends.

VMI's inspector general has implemented procedures that cover the investigation of complaints regarding all forms of discriminatory and harassing behavior within the VMI community.

VMI's procedure encourages members of the VMI community to attempt to resolve issues as informally as possible. Taking action early and seeking advice and support to resolve an issue can often avoid formal proceedings.

Don't just hope the situation will go away. Tell someone. Discuss the issue with a peer, supervisor, adviser, or counselor to get help in planning an appropriate way to deal with the issue. If appropriate, let the person causing the offending behavior know; sometimes the individual is not aware of the effects of his or her behavior on others. Be clear that you want the behavior to end. Keep a written record of all incidents, meetings, and comments. If informal channels fail to resolve the issue, any person may follow VMI's formal reporting procedures.

 Modified from the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission