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Understanding what state law has to say about sexual harassment

While we would all like to think that the 21st century workplace has evolved to a point where all employees are treated equally and with the necessary degree of professional respect, this is sadly not the case. Indeed, any simple internet news search will provide countless stories outlining shocking allegations of discrimination, retaliation and sexual harassment in all manner of workplaces across the nation.

As discouraging as this reality is, employees can find some solace in the fact that they can hold their employer legally accountable for this type of conduct. By way of illustration, consider sexual harassment, which is prohibited by Title VII of the federal Civil Rights Act and, more significant for the purposes of our discussion, the New York State Human Rights Law.

Any discussion of the legal protections afforded to workers via this important state law, however, must be prefaced by an examination of what actually constitutes sexual harassment.

Sexual harassment is any manner of unwelcome sexual conduct that either 1) creates a hostile work environment or 2) is used as a basis for important employment-related decisions (i.e., "quid pro quo" harassment).

Conduct that could generally be classified as sexual harassment includes:

  • Physical advances, unwanted touching or forced sexual actions
  • Suggestive comments, derogatory remarks or offensive jokes/pranks
  • Requests for sexual favors
  • Sexually charged gestures or displays of pornographic material

Regarding the creation of a hostile work environment, this occurs when the sexual harassment is so pervasive or severe that it causes the victim significant discomfort or humiliation, or otherwise interferes with their ability to perform their job.

As for quid pro quo harassment, this involves a person in a position of authority (i.e., manager, supervisor) seeking to exchange job-related benefits -- hiring, promotion, continued employment, other benefits, etc. -- for sexual favors.

We'll continue to examine this important topic in future posts.

In the meantime, consider speaking with an experienced legal professional as soon as possible if you believe that you have been victimized by sexual harassment in any form.

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