Sexual harassment is one of the most insidious and caustic evils in the US workplace—and it knows no bounds, judging by the rampant allegations throughout 2017 and into 2018. While sexual harassment affects both sexes, the majority of cases target women.
In a recent survey, the New York Times asked 615 men about objectionable behavior toward colleagues, including whether they have made uninvited attempts to stroke, fondle, or kiss a coworker. Twenty-five percent admitted to telling crude jokes or sharing inappropriate videos. Two percent said they had pressured people into sexual acts by offering rewards or threatening retaliation—that means 12 men admitted to this.1
Sadly, the health care industry is not immune from this corruption. In fact, sexual harassment is a major problem in health care—one that is particularly prevalent in nursing, according to Fiedler and Hamby.2 More than 50% of female nurses, physicians, and students report experiencing sexual harassment.3 And even that, I believe, is an underreported percentage.
Sexual harassment in the workplace includes any situation in which there is a demand for sexual favors in exchange for a job benefit or where an unwanted condition on any person’s employment is imposed because of that person’s sex. Since 1964, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act (42 USC Sec.2000e-2[a]) has prohibited discrimination in places of employment based on an individual’s sex.4 In 1976, it was acknowledged that this also prohibits sexual harassment as a form of sex discrimination. In 1991, amendments (42 USC Sec.1981 [a]) authorized compensatory and punitive damages as well as jury trials.5
The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), the federal agency that enforces Title VII, stipulates that
- Harassment can include unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical harassment—but it does not have to be sexual in nature (eg, making offensive comments about women in general).
- Both women and men can be victims and harassers—and the victim and harasser can be the same sex.
- Harassment is illegal when it is so frequent or severe that it creates a hostile or offensive work environment, or when it results in an adverse employment decision (eg, the victim being fired or demoted).6
Although the EEOC guidelines are not law, they do guide the judicial interpretation of what constitutes sexual harassment. Sexual harassment is an increasing source of workplace lawsuits that often result in large judgments against employers. Clinicians can file class-action suits against hospitals and other institutions, and juries may render verdicts on harassment complaints to the tune of millions of dollars.