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The Legal Consequences of Sexual Harassment

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  • 0:01 Sexual Harassment &…
  • 1:15 Example
  • 2:09 Legal Consequences for…
  • 4:09 Legal Consequences for…
  • 4:38 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Shawn Grimsley
Workplace sexual harassment leads to many problems for all involved. In this lesson, you'll learn about the legal consequences of sexual harassment for the organization and for the perpetrator of the sexual harassment. A short quiz follows.

Sexual Harassment & Legal Consequences

Workplace sexual harassment creates many serious problems for organizations and the people involved. One of the most serious consequences is legal liability for employers and the individuals engaging in sexual harassment. Legal liability, for purposes of this discussion, can be thought of as an obligation arising out of law, which may make you responsible for damages to an individual resulting from a violation of that obligation. For example, you have a legal obligation not to intentionally punch another person in the face, and if you do so, you are potentially liable for all damages resulting from the victim being punched in the face.

Another important concept to understand is vicarious liability where one is held legally responsible for the actions of another based upon some type of special relationship between the two parties. Importantly for us, employers can be held vicariously liable for the actions of their employees when those actions are taken within the course of employment because employees are generally viewed as agents of their employers.

Now, let's take a quick look at an example of workplace sexual harassment to see possible legal consequences arising from it.

Example

Carmen works for a medium-sized software company as an executive assistant for Larry. Larry likes Carmen - a little too much. Larry's pretty much a slime ball. He constantly propositions Carmen for sexual favors. He has a bad habit of leaning over her at her workstation. Larry also touches Carmen on the shoulders, even sometimes giving her 'shoulder massages.' Carmen constantly refuses Larry's advances and tries to dodge his touching as much as possible.

Recently, Larry has gotten more aggressive and has insinuated that if he doesn't get a 'date,' Carmen's job will be in jeopardy. Larry also has been spreading lies about sexual relations with Carmen among other employees of the company, giving Carmen a bad reputation. Carmen has gone to the company's HR manager, but the HR manager is reluctant to act as Larry is a key management figure in the company.

Legal Consequences for Employer

Under the facts of our example, it's pretty clear that Carmen has been subject to sexual harassment. Given the fact that Larry is Carmen's supervisor, it's also clear that Carmen's employer will be vicariously liable for Larry's illegal conduct. Carmen has the right to file a charge of workplace harassment with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which is responsible with the investigation of charges of workplace sexual harassment. She could also file a charge with her state's counterpart to the EEOC. Regulatory investigations are just one consequence.

It's also possible the company will face a lawsuit filed by Carmen if she gets a right-to-sue letter from the EEOC. Moreover, the EEOC may even file a lawsuit if the company's failure to address the sexual harassment is egregious enough. Aside from costs and attorney fees related to an EEOC investigation or litigation, the company may have to pay out significant sums of money to compensate Carmen for damages resulting from Larry's sexual harassment.

So far, the company's liability is based upon what Larry has done, but we're not done yet. As you may recall, Carmen sought help from the company's HR department to stop Larry's harassment and the company did not act. An employer may be held directly legally liable for failing to take action to remedy a hostile workplace environment. In other words, Carmen's employer had a legal duty to stop Larry from sexually harassing her. In fact, if Carmen quits, she may have a claim against her employer for constructive discharge.

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