After the #metoo movement, more and more people are becoming aware of sexual harassment and abuse, especially in the workplace. But what exactly falls under the definition of “sexual harassment”? Can you get in trouble for an inappropriate joke? What about giving a coworker a hug?
At Mike G Law, we protect the rights of people accused of harassment, assault, and abuse while helping you understand the law. In this article, we define sexual harassment—and answer big questions like, “Can I go to jail for sexual harassment?”
What is sexual harassment?
At its most basic, sexual harassment is all about behaviors that are considered “unwanted.” This includes unwanted touching and comments made verbally or through text. You might think that sexual harassment is something men do to women, but people of all genders are capable of harassing another person of any gender.
The US Equal Opportunity Employment Commission defines sexual harassment as:
“Unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature constitutes sexual harassment when submission to or rejection of this conduct explicitly or implicitly affects an individual’s employment, unreasonably interferes with an individual’s work performance or creates an intimidating, hostile or offensive work environment.”
Let’s break that down. Workplace Sexual harassment is behavior that is:
- Unwelcome or unwanted. That means the other party didn’t ask to hear sexual comments or doesn’t want to hear a dirty joke.
- Physical OR verbal. Unwanted touching and inappropriate comments (verbally or through text) can both be considered sexual harassment.
- Interfering with someone’s job. This is when an employee feels they can’t do their job or aren’t safe because of someone else’s words or behaviors. The employee might feel like they’ll face consequences (like losing out on a promotion or being fired) if they speak up or say no.
Examples of Sexual Harassment in the Workplace
- Making “dirty” jokes, talking about sex at work, or making inappropriate gestures
- Promising someone a promotion or reward if they perform sexual favors
- Threatening to fire someone, deny them a promotion, or withhold pay if they don’t put up with harassment
- Sending explicit photos or texts to someone who didn’t ask for them
- Touching, hugging, or groping someone without their consent (when that touching is sexual, it can be considered “sexual assault”)
- Harassing someone about their sex/gender
A harasser can be anyone in a workplace, including a boss, supervisor, coworker, or even a client or customer. Sexual harassment by an employer is also a form of illegal employment discrimination.
Is sexual harassment a crime? Can you go to jail for it?
It’s not against the law to make an inappropriate joke or mention sex at work.
However, workplaces may have their own policies against this kind of behavior, which may result in termination. Companies will follow their own protocols to investigate harassment claims and report issues. It’s best to err on the side of caution and stay away from such conduct or anything that could be considered discrimination, harassing behavior, or physical harassment by your coworkers.
If a victim doesn’t think an internal investigation is enough, they can turn to the civil justice system to make a civil claim of a hostile work environment. That might involve suing an alleged sexual harasser or the company itself for failing to provide a safe workspace.
These are usually civil claims, which aren’t part of the criminal justice system. That means these claims don’t come with the risk of criminal charges or jail time—but they can involve severe financial penalties. It may also harm your professional reputation.
However, when behavior turns physical, the law can get involved and result in criminal charges. This is the main difference between sexual harassment and sexual assault. When that happens, you need a criminal defense attorney like Mike G to help.
When does workplace harassment become a crime?
When harassment turns physical or escalates beyond comments or jokes, it also turns from a civil issue into a criminal one. When harassment involves certain behaviors, it’s considered a crime in the state of Florida. These behaviors include:
Sexual Assault or Battery (Rape)
Sexual assault and sexual battery are both serious charges that can carry a long sentence depending on the case. In Florida law, the term “sexual battery” is synonymous with “rape.”
In addition to possible prison time, someone convicted of sexual battery will have to register as a sex offender for the rest of their life. Charges will depend on a few factors, such as if there’s a weapon present or violence is threatened.
See our page on Rape & Sexual Assault for more information.
Stalking & Cyberstalking
In Florida, stalking is defined as the repeated following or harassment of another person. It doesn’t have to always be sexual in nature, though it could be seen as an escalation of sexual harassment.
Stalking is usually a misdemeanor, although it’s considered a felony if the victim is under 16, threatened with violence, or has a restraining order in place. Cyberstalking is treated similarly, though it also includes trying to access online accounts without permission.
The most common example of sexual cyberharassment is “revenge porn.” It’s against the law to post explicit images or videos you’ve received from someone else without their consent. Even if the images were willingly shared, they can’t be distributed without the subject’s consent.
See our page on Sexual Cyberharassment for more information.
What do I do if I’ve been accused of sexual harassment?
If you’ve been accused of harassment, misconduct, or any kind of misbehavior, remember that you have legal rights.
Your first step should be to seek help from a qualified defense lawyer. As a former sex crimes prosecutor, Mike G knows how to ensure you’re treated fairly by the law. Tampa residents can call us today at 813-221-4303 or click here to contact us.
In the meantime, follow theses do’s and don’ts:
- DON’T try to contact your accuser to “work things out”—they may accuse you of making a threat.
- DON’T try to retaliate or get revenge against your accuser.
- DO talk to your supervisor about what happened and follow their instructions on how to proceed.
- DO write down your side of the story.
Don’t let a sex crime ruin your life. Let Mike G help protect your future.