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What are an employer's obligations related to sexual harrassment?

Most people are already aware that federal laws prevent sexual harassment within the workplace. However, many victims and employers remain fuzzy on what exactly the obligations of an employer are when sexual harassment occurs on the job.

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act and two major Supreme Court decisions make it clear that in some cases employers can be held legally responsible if supervisors engage in unlawful harassment of employees. It's important for employers to know that sexual harassment in violation of federal law occurs when an employee receives discriminatory treatment. This can also include harassment of a sexual nature.

To be clear, flippant remarks, mild teasing and even isolated incidents that aren't serious may not rise to the level of harassment. Generally, these actions have to be quite severe or occur frequently as to create a hostile work environment. Another way that an employer can incur liability is if the discriminatory conduct leads to some manner of adverse employment action. A good example of this is a decision not to hire an individual or promote them based on their refusal to participate in sexual activities. This also applies to employers firing or demoting employees.

Another important thing for both employers and victims of sexual harassment to know is the defenses an employer may have against liability for a supervisor's bad actions. Generally, an employer can avoid liability if he or she can prove that reasonable care was exercised to prevent harassment from occurring within the workplace. Another way is by taking prompt measures to correct any reported sexual harassment. It is the duty of an employee who has suffered harassment to report that incident to management. A failure to report can often imperil a victim's claims.

There are a few things everyone should know regardless of whether you want to protect your business from unfounded claims or you are a victim seeking relief from sexual harassment. New Jersey also has anti-discriminatory laws in addition to federal regulations. An employment law attorney with experience in handling these types of cases can advise on what you need to do to obtain the most favorable outcome for your situation. This is true whether you need to implement sexual harassment policies at your business or file a discrimination-based lawsuit against an employer.

Source: The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, "Questions and Answers for Small Employers on Employer Liability for Harassment by Supervisors," accessed May. 28, 2015

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