Workplace sexual harassment is defined primarily as unwelcome and offensive sexually-oriented advances or actions that occur in the work setting. These include inappropriate touching, flirting, blocking of physical movement, requests for sexual favors and other acts of a sexual nature that engenders stress and intimidation for the victim, or the rejection of which could lead to loss of employment or position. This definition, however, is still subject to contextual interpretation in terms of its use in litigation. For instance, if someone habitually has sexual relations at work, it may be a case of the boy crying wolf when later that person sues for workplace sexual harassment.
Historically, sexual harassment laws arose from the rulings in the 1986 case of Meritor Savings Bank v. Vinson in which the judge deemed the case had merits in that the alleged sexual harassment was in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. However, Title VII only applies to private or government companies or organizations with at least 15 employees.
Sexual harassment is always unwelcome but may not necessarily be between two people of the opposite sex. The victim and harasser may be of either sex. In the workplace, sexual harassment is typically perpetrated by a person of some authority or influence on the victim, but there have been cases where both parties were of equal standing. The law has also been broadened to include offensive conduct that need not be directed at the victim but nevertheless causes offense or discomfort to others.
The main agency that checks workplace sexual harassment prior to any legal action and provides guidelines for it is the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), in conjunction with states Fair Employment Practices agencies. When investigating allegations, the EEOC ascertains that a complete picture of the entire situation is presented in order to arrive at an informed decision. There are no textbook cases in workplace sexual harassment, although precedents may be used as a basis to arrive at a final ruling.
In 2006, the EEOC handled more than 12,000 cases, 1,852 of which the plaintiff was male. A majority were resolved and the EEOC succeeded in getting $48.8 million awarded to successful plaintiffs at the arbitration level.
In the ten years between 1997 and 2006, the number of cases filed with the EEOC has been slowly but steadily dropping, from a high of 15,889 in 1997 to a low of 12,025 in 2006, with a concurrent rise in the proportion of males originating the complaint from 11.6% to 15.4%.The EEOC also displayed a general rise in number of settlements from 1,178 cases in 1997 to 1,458 in 2006.
Of the total cases in 1997, administrative closures accounted for nearly 40% of cases with 41.4% cases deemed without merit or no reasonable cause. Comparatively, the percentage of administrative closures in 2006 dropped, to 23.8% of total cases and cases with no reasonable caused rose to 47.5%, although the rise was not consistent across the 10-year period.
What is the significance of these figures? It suggests that people tend to claim sexual harassment when none has occurred. While fewer actual workplace sexual harassment complaints were filed in 2006 compared to 1997, the percentage of cases with no reasonable cause increased more than 6%. This may be attributed to the increased sensitivity of workers to perceived harassment. It also suggests a shift from female-focused sexual undermining to a more equitable male-female mix.