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The difficulty with defining sexual harassment

While many New Jersey employers and employees may have an idea of what sexual harassment is, it is difficult to arrive at one accepted definition of the behavior that constitutes it. The definition of sexual harassment may vary by industry and company policy, with some fields more tolerant of behavior that would be considered problematic in a different work environment.

Before 1986, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that sexual harassment at the workplace violated the Civil Rights Act of 1964, workplace sexual harassment was not recognized at all. Generations of working women had instead been taught that suggestive comments and unwanted advances were just part of having jobs. Since the court's ruling, employers across the country have struggled to define sexual harassment as they write their companies' sexual harassment policies.

While some banter will always be present, understanding when it goes too far is important. Where that line is actually drawn may vary substantially from one employment setting to another. For example, courts may take the position that women who work in male-dominated fields, such as construction, should expect a certain level of locker-room jokes and talk to occur. In offices, such behavior may be deemed to be sexual harassment by the courts, however.

People of either gender who have been subjected to unwanted sexual comments or advances at work may have several options. An employment law attorney can assist in investigating whether or not the behavior was sexual harassment. If so, the first step employees should take when they are harassed at work is to follow their employer's complaint process. If that proves fruitless, they may want to file a claim with the EEOC. There are time restrictions on such a process that the attorney can explain.

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