What is sexual harassment?

Sexual harassment is a form of gender discrimination.  Sexual harassment is unlawful under federal law (Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964) and Illinois law (the Illinois Human Rights Act).

There are two general types of sexual harassment: (1) hostile work environment, and (2) quid pro quo.

Hostile Work Environment

A hostile work environment may arise from a variety of sexually offensive conduct.  Examples of sexually offensive conduct include sexually offensive language in the workplace, indecent gestures, crude language, unwanted sexual advances, unwanted flirtation, physical touching, staring or ogling, lewd, suggestive or obscene remarks, discussing sexual activities, commenting on physical attributes, sexually offensive jokes, displaying sexually suggestive pictures, electronic communications containing sexually explicit images or language  (emails, text messages, instant messaging, etc.), or pornography in the workplace.

The sexually offensive conduct must be: (1) unwelcome, (2) based on the employee’s protected status, (3) subjectively offensive to the employee, and (4) objectively severe and pervasive enough to create a work environment that a reasonable person would find hostile or abusive.

Whether the conduct is sufficiently pervasive depends on the particular facts and circumstances of each situation.  Factors include: (1) the frequency of the conduct; (2) the severity of the conduct; (3) whether the conduct was physically threatening or humiliating; (4) whether the conduct unreasonably interfered with the employee’s work performance; (5) the effect on the employee's psychological well-being; and (6) whether the harasser was a supervisor or manager.

Quid Pro Quo

Quid pro quo sexual harassment occurs when an employment decision is based on an employee's acceptance or rejection of unwelcome sexual advances, sexual propositions, or requests for sexual favors.  This type of harassment is usually committed by a manager or supervisor who has power or authority over the victim’s employment.  The quid pro quo harasser exploits the implied or explicit threat of adverse employment decisions, such as termination, demotion, or non-promotion, or the promise of favorable employment decisions, such as promotion, salary increases, or bonuses.  Examples of quid pro quo sexual harassment include: (1) terminating a subordinate for rejecting sexual propositions; (2) requiring a subordinate to submit to unwelcome sexual advances as a condition of continued employment; and (3) offering preferential treatment to a subordinate in exchange for sexual favors.