style element
Diversity Image

Diversity, Inclusion and Equal Opportunity Office  
Sex Discrimination - What Supervisors Need to Know

See also: Pregnancy Discrimination - What Supervisors Need to Know

See also: Wage Discrimination - What Supervisors Need to Know

Excerpts taken from The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission "Training and Technical Assistance Program 2002" and online at http://www.eeoc.gov/facts/qanda.html


Q & A: Sex Discrimination - What Practices Are Discriminatory?

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits employment discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.

It is illegal to discriminate in any aspect of employment, including:
  • hiring and firing;
  • compensation, assignment, or classification of employees;
  • transfer, promotion, layoff, or recall;
  • job advertisements;
  • recruitment;
  • testing;
  • use of company facilities;
  • training and apprenticeship programs;
  • fringe benefits;
  • pay, retirement plans, and disability leave; or
  • terms and conditions of employment.
Title VII's broad prohibitions against sex discrimination specifically cover:
  • Sexual Harassment - This includes practices ranging from direct requests for sexual favors to workplace conditions that create a hostile environment for persons of either gender, including same sex harassment. (The "hostile environment" standard also applies to harassment on the bases of race, color, national origin, religion, age, and disability.)
  • Pregnancy Based Discrimination - Pregnancy, childbirth, and related medical conditions must be treated in the same way as other temporary illnesses or conditions.
The Equal Pay Act prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex in the payment of wages or benefits, where men and women perform work of similar skill, effort, and responsibility for the same employer under similar working conditions.

Note that:
  • Employers may not reduce wages of either sex to equalize pay between men and women.
  • A violation of the EPA may occur where a different wage was/is paid to a person who worked in the same job before or after an employee of the opposite sex.
  • A violation may also occur where a labor union causes the employer to violate the law.
Facts about Sexual Harassment

Sexual harassment is a form of sex discrimination that violates Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature constitutes sexual harassment when submission to or rejection of this conduct explicitly or implicitly affects an individual's employment, unreasonably interferes with an individual's work performance or creates an intimidating, hostile or offensive work environment.

Sexual harassment can occur in a variety of circumstances, including but not limited to the following:
  • The victim as well as the harasser may be a woman or a man. The victim does not have to be of the opposite sex.
  • The harasser can be the victim's supervisor, an agent of the employer, a supervisor in another area, a co-worker, or a non co-employee.
  • The victim does not have to be the person harassed but could be anyone affected by the offensive conduct.
  • Unlawful sexual harassment may occur without economic injury to or discharge of the victim.
  • The harasser's conduct must be unwelcome.
It is helpful for the victim to directly inform the harasser that the conduct is unwelcome and must stop. The victim should use any employer complaint mechanism or grievance system available.

When investigating allegations or sexual harassment, EEOC looks at the whole record: the circumstances, such as the nature of the sexual advances, and the context in which the alleged incidents occurred. A determination on the allegations is made from the facts on a case-by-case basis.

Prevention is the best tool to eliminate sexual harassment in the workplace. Employers are encouraged to take steps necessary to prevent sexual harassment from occurring. They should clearly communicate to employees that sexual harassment will not be tolerated. They can do so by establishing an effective complaint or grievance process and taking immediate and appropriate action when an employee complains.

Recognizing Sexual Harassment
  1. General Points about Sexual Harassment
    • Sexual harassment is a form of sex discrimination in violation of Title VII

      Title VII does not explicitly prohibit sexual harassment, but the Supreme court has made clear that it is a form of unlawful sex discrimination in violation of the Act.

      Unwelcome verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature constitutes unlawful sexual harassment when submission to such conduct is made a term or condition of employment; submission to or rejection of such conduct is used as the basis for employment decisions; or such conduct unreasonably interferes with job performance or creates an intimidating, hostile, or offensive work environment.

      Note that harassment of an individual because of his or her gender is unlawful regardless of whether the harassment is sexual in nature. For example, if a supervisor frequently says to his female subordinate "you're a woman, what do you know", or "we'd all be better off if women would just stay at home and mind the kids", this may constitute unlawful gender-based harassment.

      Note also that sexual harassment may violate state fair employment practices and laws, and it may serve as a basis for a tort claim. Federal contractors are also responsible for correcting sexual harassment under Executive Order 11246.

    • The harasser as well as the target can be a man or a woman.

      The Supreme Court recognizes that a man can sexually harass a man and a woman, a woman. If a male supervisor demands sexual favors from a male subordinate in return for a promotion, that would violate Title VII. In 1998, in Oncale v. Sundowner Offshore Services, Inc., the Supreme Court decided that Title VII reaches same-sex harassment cases where the plaintiff can prove that the harassment is because of the plaintiff's sex.

    • The conduct must be unwelcome to the target of the harassment.

      "Unwelcome" means that the employee did not solicit or incite the conduct and regarded it as undesirable.

      Unwelcomeness is in certain ways a two-way street. On the one hand, a person who is making sexual remarks at work should have some sense of whether his behavior is welcome. Silence on the part of the person on the receiving end would likely communicate that the sexual remarks are not welcome. On the other hand, the person on the receiving end may have some responsibility to make his or her feelings known.

    • What should the person who is harassed do?

      A victim of harassment should clearly communicate to the harasser-verbally, in writing, through a third party, or in some other way-that the conduct is unwelcome. Evidence that the victim actively participated in the conduct that she later challenged, would generally defeat a harassment claim, since the active participation communicates welcomeness.

      Example: Jennifer Rogers works as an administrative assistant. Many of her male co-workers and a few of her female co-workers enjoy engaging in sexual banter and horseplay in the office. They often trade stories about their sexual exploits, kid about each other's sexual prowess, and even grab at each other's body parts. Jennifer is very upset and offended by this conduct; however, she does not communicate this to anyone and, at times, she joins in the sexual banter herself in order to get along with these individuals.

      Thus, the fact that Jennifer Rogers joined in the conduct probably would undermine her ability to challenge it. Even if she persuaded a court that she genuinely did not welcome the sexual banter, it probably would rule against her because she behaved in a way that communicated that she welcomed it. On the other hand, if Jennifer stops joining in the conduct and makes clear that she finds it offensive, any further such conduct from that point on would be considered unwelcome.

      Note that while active participation in sexual conduct usually will defeat a sexual harassment claim, acquiescence to sexual demands would not necessarily have the same effect. Acquiescence or submission to sexual demands does not necessarily mean that the conduct was welcome. So, for example, if a supervisor demands sexual favors in return for a promotion, and the subordinate acquiesces, a claim of sexual harassment could still be established.

    • Harassment can be verbal, physical, pictorial.

      For example, harassment can include: sexual comments, jokes, innuendo; pressure for dates; sexual touching; sexual gestures; sexual graffiti. Non-sexual gender-based harassment could include hostile and derogatory comments about women or men as a group.

    • Claimant does not have to be the person at whom the offensive conduct is directed but can be anyone affected by the conduct.

      For example, in one case, an attorney provided that certain supervisors in her office regularly awarded promotions, cash bonuses and other benefits to women with whom they were engaged in sexual relationships. While no significant sexual conduct was ever directed at the attorney who brought the lawsuit, the court nevertheless ruled that she had established sexual harassment because the conduct created a sexually hostile environment that was offensive to her. Note that the same claim could probably have been established by any male employee in that office who found the conduct offensive.

  2. Categories of Sexual Harassment

    There are two categories of sexual harassment - harassment that results in a tangible employment action and "hostile environment" harassment.
    • Harassment Resulting in a Tangible Employment Action

      Definition: Tangible job benefits are granted or denied based on the submission to or rejection of unwelcome sexual conduct.

      Example: Tom sometimes makes comments to his secretary, Ann Jones, about how attractive she is. She never says anything when he makes these comments. One day, Ann requests a raise. Tom says that he will consider her request, and suggests that the two of them go for drinks and to dinner after work. Ann makes clear that she wants to keep their relationship purely professional and would therefore prefer not to go out with him. Tom says that he understands. Two weeks later, Tom informs Anne that he has denied her request for a raise. She asks Tom for an explanation, and he says that if she would just be more "cooperative" with him, then the chance for a raise would improve. Ann asks if the "cooperativeness" that Tom desires is sexual in nature. Tom just smiles and says "You figure it out".

      This scenario describes a situation where the harasser is a supervisor and tangible job benefits are involved. Therefore, Tom Smith's behavior would probably constitute unlawful sexual harassment.

    • Only a supervisor or manager can undertake a tangible employment action.

      A tangible employment action can only be carried out by a person with supervisory authority. This is because a co-worker or non-employee who has no supervisory authority does not have the power to condition job benefits or opportunities on submission to sexual conduct.

    • The demand for sexual favors in return for job benefits can be explicit or implicit.

      In the scenario about Tom Smith, he never explicitly said that Ann Jones' job evaluation would improve if he engaged in sexual conduct with hi, but he implied as much.

    • The job benefits at issue must be tangible, e.g., promotion, job retention, or compensation.

      The Supreme Court has defined a tangible employment action as "a significant change in employment status".

      A tangible employment action, in most instances, can only be caused by a supervisor or other person acting with the authority of the company.

      Examples of tangible employment actions include:
      • hiring and firing;
      • promotion and failure to promote;
      • demotion;
      • undesirable reassignment;
      • a decision causing a significant change in benefits;
      • compensation decisions; and
      • work assignment


    • One instance of harassment resulting in a tangible employment action is sufficient to constitute a violation of Title VII.

      There's no need to show a pattern of such conduct.


    The second category of sexual harassment claims concerns the "hostile environment" situation.
    • Hostile Environment Harassment

      Definition: Sexual comments or conduct that have the purpose or effect of unreasonably interfering with an individual's work performance or creating an intimidating or offensive working environment.

      The Jennifer Rogers scenario above describes a situation where no tangible job benefits are affected. These fact scenarios could fall into the category of "hostile environment" harassment. This category of harassment is often more subtle than harassment that results in tangible employment action, and it is often more difficult to determine where the line falls between lawful and unlawful conduct.

    • A supervisor, co-worker or non-employee can commit this type of harassment.

      This is in contrast to harassment that results in a tangible employment action.

    • Nothing tangible about the individual's job need be affected

      Unlike a claim of harassment that results in a tangible employment action, a hostile environment harassment claim does not require a showing that the victim was fired, denied a promotion, or otherwise penalized in a tangible way as a result of the harassment. The focus here is on the intangible work atmosphere, and if that atmosphere is made intimidating, hostile or offensive as a result of unwelcome sexual conduct, then a violation of Title VII will be found.

    • Key issues are frequency and severity

      The more frequent the conduct, the less severe it needs to be to create a hostile environment. On the other hand, the less frequent the conduct, the more severe it must be. Thus, one isolated instance of harassment is generally not enough, unless it is extremely severe, such as a physical sexual assault.

      One request for a date, even by a supervisor, would not create a hostile environment. Ten requests by a supervisor or by a co-worker, in the face of repeated rejections, most likely would constitute unlawful harassment. Five requests may or may not create a hostile environment - it depends on all the circumstances. If the requests are by a supervisor as opposed to a co-worker, that's inherently more severe and more likely to cross the line into unlawful conduct.

    • "Reasonable person" standard governs.

      From whose perspective is harassment measured? If this conduct would substantially affect the work environment or a reasonable person, and if, as we discussed earlier, the conduct was unwelcome to the individual bringing the claim, then a violation of Title VII will be found. A "reasonableness" standard guards against claims by hypersensitive individuals. In other words, a particular individual might be genuinely offended by her male co-worker's invitation to lunch, but a reasonable person would not view this conduct as sexual harassment. On the other hand, a reasonable person standard would not incorporate stereotypical attitudes that might be prevalent in a workplace. So even if a workplace has long been pervaded with sexual epithets and sexual graffiti, a reasonable person could find that such conduct creates a hostile environment.

      Furthermore, the EEOC has taken the position, that the gender and other circumstances of the victim should be considered in applying a reasonable person standard.

    • Severe psychological harm is not necessary to establish a violation.

      The Supreme Court, in Harris v. Forklift Systems, held that a person who brings a sexual harassment claim need not prove that she suffered psychological harm. If psychological harm is shown, that would certainly be considered in determining whether the conduct rose to a level of a hostile environment, and it would be critical in determining the amount of damages to be awarded. But psychological harm is not a necessary requirement for a sexual harassment claim.


Discussion
  • Isolated Instances of Favoritism Towards a "Paramour" Not Prohibited

    Not all type of sexual favoritism violate Title VII. It is the Commission's position that Title VII does not prohibit isolated instances of preferential treatment based upon consensual romantic relationships. An isolated instance of favoritism toward a "paramour" (or a spouse, or a friend) may be unfair, but it does not discriminate against women or men in violation of Title VII, since both are disadvantaged for reasons other than their genders.

  • Favoritism Based Upon Coerced Sexual Conduct May Constitute Quid Pro Quo Harassment

    If a female or male employee is coerced into submitting to unwelcome sexual advances in return for a job benefit, other employees who were qualified for but were denied the benefit may be able to establish that sex was generally made a condition for receiving the benefit.

  • Widespread Favoritism May Constitute Hostile Environment Harassment

    If favoritism based upon the granting of sexual favors is widespread in a workplace, both male and female colleagues who do not welcome this conduct can establish a hostile work environment in violation on Title VII regardless of whether any objectionable conduct is directed at them and regardless of whether those who were granted favorable treatment willingly bestowed the sexual favors. In these circumstances, a message is implicitly conveyed that the managers view women as "sexual playthings", thereby creating an atmosphere that is demeaning to women. Both men and women who find this offensive can establish a violation if the conduct is "sufficiently severe or pervasive to alter the conditions of [their] employment and create and abusive working environment". Vinson, 477 U.S. at 67 [quoting Henson v. City of Dundee, 682 F.2nd 897, 904, 29 EPD 32,993 (11th Cir. 1982)]. An analogy can be made to a situation in which supervisors in an office regularly make racial, ethnic or sexual jokes. Even if the targets of the humor "play along" and in no way display that they object, co-workers of any race, national origin or sex can claim that this conduct, which communicates a bias against protected class members, creates a hostile work environment for them.

    Managers who engage in widespread sexual favoritism may also communicate a message that they way for women to get ahead in the workplace is by engaging in sexual conduct or that sexual solicitations are a prerequisite to their fair treatment. This can form the basis of an implicit "quid pro quo" harassment claim for female employees, as well as a hostile environment claim for both women and men who find this offensive.