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Different Understandings of Sexual Harassment

It’s clear that we are experiencing a unique cultural moment regarding sex harassment in the workplace. News stories about accused harassers break daily in the news, and the “silence breakers” were named Time Magazine’s Person of the Year. Amidst this constant conversation, a recent Reuters poll demonstrates that not everyone in the workplace has the same understanding of what constitutes sexual harassment.

The poll found that most adults agree that intentional groping or kissing “without your consent” is considered sexual harassment. People were more divided over whether “unwanted compliments about your appearance” or “dirty jokes” would be considered sexual harassment. Under the law, any of these acts can be considered sexual harassment. This poll illustrates a challenge employer’s face: ensuring that their employees behave lawfully both to protect all employees and to lower the employers risk of a lawsuit.

Interestingly, a survey by the New York Times found that 25% of men surveyed admitted to performing one action that could be classified as sexual harassment in their workplace by: telling inappropriate jokes or stories; making sexist remarks; showing sexual material; engaging in unwanted sex talk; making gestures; asking someone on a date after they said no; asking someone to be in a relationship after saying no; touching someone; stroking someone, or; sexually coercing a co-worker. Many of the men did not identify those behaviors as "harassing."

People’s perceptions of what constitutes sexual harassment are not completely in sync with their co-workers or with the law. Clear training and workplace policies are critical to ensure that employees all understand what is acceptable in the workplace.