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When does it cross the line into sexual harassment?

Even those fortunate enough never to be the victim or witness of sexual harassment at work can likely imagine what a clear-cut case would look like. A harasser who fondles employees or makes clearly inappropriately sexual statements, and threatens victims with termination if they complain, is clearly violating those victim’s right to a safe, nontoxic work environment.

But sometimes, harassers’ behavior is more subtle, and victims question whether what is going on actually qualifies as sexual harassment.

The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission defines sexual harassment as unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and verbal or physical harassment of a sexual nature, or simply offensive comments about a person’s sex.

On the other hand, the law does not prohibit teasing, offhand remarks and minor, isolated incidents. The conduct must be so frequent or severe that it creates a hostile or offensive work environment, or causes the victim to suffer in his or her career, such as by getting demoted or fired.

It is not necessary that a worker be female to be the victim of sexual harassment. Men and women can be victimized, and the harasser can be the opposite sex as the victim, or both can be the same sex.

Nor must the harasser be a boss or direct supervisor for the victim to have a course of action. He or she might supervise a different department, or be a co-worker or even client of the employer.

Sexual harassment can be highly destructive and devastating, but victims do not have to take it without fighting back.

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