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Understanding the Laws Regarding Sexual Harassment

Sexual harassment in the workplace is prohibited by federal, state, and New York City laws. However, the laws differ in significant ways.

Federal Harassment Law

The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) explains that sexual harassment is "a form of sex discrimination that violates Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964." Under the federal law, any employer with 15 or more employees is required to comply with discrimination prohibitions and must take steps to investigate sexual harassment complaints.

The EEOC explains that sexual harassment can take many forms, including but not limited to:

● Unwelcome sexual advances;

● Requests for sexual favors;

● Verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature that explicitly or implicitly affects a person's employment;

● Verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature that unreasonably interferes with a person's work performance; and/or

● Verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature that creates an intimidating, hostile, or offensive work environment.

State and Local Harassment Law

New York State laws regarding sexual harassment expand the protection available to employees. Since 2015, the provisions of the State Human Rights Law provide protection for all employees in New York State. While New York state follows federal law in requiring a situation to be pervasive or severe to count as sexual harassment, the circumstances under which the behavior occurred could determine whether the employee has a case, and a single incident of inappropriate behavior may be enough to substantiate a sexual harassment claim.

Employees in New York City are also protected from sexual harassment by the New York City Human Rights Law. While the standard for behavior to count as harassment can be quite high at the federal and state level, in New York City, the standard is more liberal in that sexual harassment does not need to be severe or pervasive to be actionable. Thus, under the New York City Human Rights Law, harassing behavior can include, but is not limited to:

● Sexual comments;

● Jokes;

● Innuendo;

● Pressure for dates;

● Sexual touching;

● Sexual gestures;

● Sexual graffiti.

Employer Responsibility

New York State Law places sole responsibility on employers for preventing sexual harassment in the workplace. Employers are strictly liable for sexual harassment by an owner or high-level manager. In cases where there are multiple owner or managers, if one owner engages in sexual harassment, even without the knowledge of the other owners or managers, the employer may still be liable.

Employers are also strictly liable for sexual harassment by a lower-level manager or a supervisor who has a sufficient degree of control over the employee being harassed. The employer may be considered liable if the harassment is done by a coworker as well, depending on their knowledge of the sexual harassment and their efforts to investigate the claim and stop the behavior from continuing.

Understanding the laws regarding sexual harassment can be difficult, whether you are an employer or employee in New York City or State. A New York employment attorney is an important ally in exploring potential complaints, gaining assistance in investigating complaints, putting a workplace policy in place or conducting trainings to prevent sexual harassment before it happens.

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