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When Does Workplace Harassment Become a Crime?

When Does Workplace Harassment Become a Crime?

As employment and labor attorneys, we see instances of workplace harassment, hostile work environments, and sexual harassment – as well as the retaliatory actions that can come with all of this offensive behavior – all too often. Still, there is a difference between workplace harassment as civil versus criminal acts in that only some acts of workplace harassment constitute actual crimes, and it is important to be aware of the difference, as we discuss in greater detail, below.

What is Sexual Harassment?

When many of us think of sexual harassment, we think of a woman being harassed or threatened by a man inappropriately in the workplace. However, it is important to note that sexual harassment applies to everyone, and everyone is protected from it in the workplace. This includes prohibited actions that involve suggestive verbal remarks and touching someone without their consent upon finding out about their sexual orientation.

Most sexual harassment actions are considered to be civil wrongs in that, in court, the victim can sue the perpetrator (or typically the employer who is either involved or fails to take action to ensure a safe work environment) for compensatory damages. When an employer knows or should have known about harassment or a hostile work environment, yet they do not take immediate or corrective action, they can be held accountable (in a civil action) in court. This conduct violates Title VII, which prohibits unlawful discrimination against someone based on their color, national origin, race, religion, or sex/sexual orientation.

There are two types of sexual harassment within Title VII: 

  • Quid pro quo: Employee is subject to unwelcome sexual harassment in the form of sexual advances or requests for favors based on sex, and this involves receiving a tangible job benefit, whereby the refusal would result in a job detriment and respondent superiors failed to take immediate and appropriate corrective action
  • Hostile work environment: Employee is subject to unwelcome sexual harassment in the form of advances, requests for favors, or other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature, based on sex, and it unreasonably interferes with their work performance by creating an offensive, hostile, or intimidating working environment. Management knew about the harassment but failed to take immediate and appropriate corrective action

When it Becomes a Crime

While most sexual harassment in the workplace is not a crime, if it escalates to a certain activity (typically that which involves assault), it becomes a crime; For example, with the following:

  • Assault and battery, which includes intentional, offensive physical contact or threat of such contact
  • Bullying, for example, where the harasser posts sexually offensive comments on a public page or tries to use sex to leverage certain actions with an employee, such as with the threat of an adverse job action
  • False imprisonment, where the victim’s freedom of movement is restrained
  • Pornography, under some circumstances (for example, child pornography)
  • Rape
  • Stalking, where the victim is followed home or trolled on social media websites, or otherwise followed in other areas, such as parking lots, etc.

Columbus, Ohio, Workplace Harassment Lawyers

If you or a loved one has been the victim of harassment in the workplace, it is important to take legal action. Taking a stand can not only ensure that you are protected, but it can also encourage others to speak out when abuse is present. If you have any questions, contact our workplace harassment lawyers today for a free consultation.

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