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Clarifying some misunderstandings about sexual harassment

Sexual harassment in the workplace has been in the news a good deal recently with the multiple accusations against Bill O'Reilly, who is now gone from the Fox News Channel, and others at the network who allegedly harassed female employees or knew that harassment was occurring but did nothing. Sexual harassment claims also resulted in the dismissal of FNC head Roger Ailes. Just this week, his successor Bill Shine resigned amid allegations that he enabled sexual harassment at the network.

Despite efforts by employers to address sexual harassment, the number of complaints handled by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) changed little in recent years. Of course, many victims don't report it for fear of harming their careers or losing their jobs.

Although sexual harassment is more openly discussed than ever, there's still a good deal of confusion regarding what constitutes harassment and who can be victimized by it. According to one employment attorney, complimenting an employee on his or her appearance occasionally or even asking for a date, as long as it's not done persistently, generally isn't considered harassment. However, she notes, "Multiple comments about appearance coupled with touchings or rubbings are problematic."

Sexual harassment is defined in Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 as behavior so "severe or pervasive" that it affects a person's work. Some victims even suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder.

The victims and perpetrators of sexual harassment are a broader group than many realize. Although only about 16 percent of complaints to the EEOC are from men, the percentage of male victims could be much higher. Nonetheless, women are more likely to be victims. Harassment can be by someone of the same gender. The perpetrator can be an employee's boss, colleague or even a client, vendor or customer.

Those who are sexually harassed should follow their company's reporting procedures. Even if there isn't a written policy, victims can and should report the harassment to a manager or human resources. Reporting sexual harassment can help protect other potential victims, as many perpetrators harass multiple people. Further, as we've seen with Fox News, once one victim comes forward, others often find the courage to follow suit.

If those within your company who are responsible for assisting and protecting you can't or won't, it may be wise to consult with an experienced West Virginia employment law attorney to determine your options and next steps.

Source: CBS News, "5 things to know about sexual harassment at work," Jonathan Berr, April 25, 2017

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