When adults spend an enormous amount of time together, they are bound to have some adult-themed conversation at some point. Much of the time, conversations with sexual content or undertones can be harmless, consensual, and enjoyable. However, when sexually themed comments and conversations become common in a workplace environment, the risk arises that the conversation may escalate and potentially offend some employees. For this reason, managers and supervisors should always try to rein in any type of sexual banter at work.
Consider the following example: a male employee with no ill intentions makes a comedic sexually-themed comment to a female colleague, and the female laughs. Because she laughed, he may be encouraged that she appreciates and is comfortable with that type of humor, and may continue to make similar jokes or comments in the future. The sexual nature of the comments may increase, and though she may become slightly uncomfortable, she does not object or ask him to stop making such comments. Believing his co-worker is completely at ease with sexual conversations, the male employee stops making jokes and begins directing sexual comments at her by inquiring about her sex life or commenting on her body. He reaches out and touches her to illustrate remarks about her body, and begins regularly leering at her. Now highly offended, the female employee files a formal complaint of sexual harassment.
These are the actual facts of a case brought by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) against the office of the Governor of Alaska for sexual harassment of one Special Staff Assistant against another. Had the original sexually-themed jokes never occurred or been discouraged, perhaps the office could have avoided the case altogether.
Companies should try to avoid harassment lawsuits
Fashion house Gucci recently faced a similar—and unwarranted—sexual harassment claim. After a male employee was legitimately fired due to his demeanor at work, he brought a claim alleging that workplace banter regarding a supervisor’s sexual orientation had created a hostile and offensive work environment for him. Though the court decided that such banter did not, in fact, create a sexually hostile work environment, Gucci still had to dedicate time, money, and energy to defending the claim in court. The company could have possibly avoided the entire ordeal had they worked to control sexually-themed banter to begin with.
Employees may also do their part to avoid escalation to sexual harassment. One employment law attorney advised employees to always pretend they were speaking with their first grade teacher or mother, and to edit the content of the conversation accordingly. If conversations do not have any sexual connotation at all, you will never risk sexually offending someone. Furthermore, if any conversation makes you even slightly uncomfortable, speak up and inform your co-worker immediately that you would like that conversation or behavior to cease, and would not appreciate similar conversations in the future.
Finally, if you do believe you have been sexually harassed at work, it is important to contact an experienced employment law attorney at Pershing Square Law Firm as soon as possible for help.