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Sexual harassment, particularly in the workplace, is a form of discrimination. Discriminatory workplace practices include bias in job assignment, promotion, compensation, hiring, termination, retaliation or harassment involving physical or verbal abuse of a sexual nature. In the United States, sexual harassment and discrimination are subject to both state laws and federal law established under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Title VII outlines two major forms of sexual harassment, hostile environment sexual harassment and quid pro quo sexual harassment.
Hostile environment sexual harassment consists of sexual harassment in which the atmosphere at work is one in which the employee is subject to unwelcome physical or verbal behavior that is sexual in nature and either severe or pervasive. This form of sexual harassment may occur if, for example, a group of co-workers continues to share pornographic images with another co-worker who has previously made clear that he or she finds the images offensive. Quid pro quo sexual harassment is sexual harassment that occurs when the fulfillment of a sexual demand acts as a prerequisite for an employment decision. This form of sexual harassment may occur if, for example, an employee who rejects the romantic advances of a supervisor is later reprimanded or fired in retaliation.
Simple teasing is not prohibited under the law, and single incidents or offhand comments made in jest may not rise to the level of sexual harassment and discrimination in isolation, but this behavior can rise to the level of illegal sexual harassment if it develops into a pattern of behavior or is indicative of a growing hostility in the workplace. The particular gender or sexual orientation of the victim or harasser is not a precondition for a finding of sexual harassment and discrimination in the workplace. A victim of sexual harassment and discrimination can be a woman or a man and the harasser can be of the opposite or same sex. It is also not necessary for the victim to be the person specifically harassed, nor is an economic loss a necessity for a finding of discrimination to be found. When investigating allegations of sexual harassment and discrimination, government agencies and other relevant law enforcement organizations will generally look to the record as a whole, including the context surrounding the conduct, the nature of the sexual behavior, and the situation in which incidents are said to have occurred.
While federal and state laws exist to protect the victims of discrimination and sexual harassment, elimination of the discriminatory behavior and sexual harassment in the workplace is often best achieved through the development of appropriate workplace discrimination prevention policies and workplace harassment training. Prevention policies and training can serve as a powerful deterrent when they effectively communicate the message that sexual harassment will not be tolerated. This is done when the communication is directly linked to an employee grievance system designed to take claims of sexual harassment and discrimination seriously, appropriately, and with a sense of urgency.