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Washington, DC Employment Law Blog

The definitions of different types of sexual harassment

Many people think that sexual harassment is a term reserved only for instances of forceful or abusive conduct. While unfortunately such types of behavior do occur in the workplace, sexual harassment can also occur in more subtle ways. If you are feeling uncomfortable in the workplace because of the inappropriate behavior of another, you must make yourself aware of the most common warning signs of sexual harassment.

There are two ways to define sexual harassment in the workplace. The first is known as quid pro quo sexual harassment. This occurs when an employee with considerable power offers something of value in return for a favor of a sexual nature. For example, if your boss offers you a promotion in return for dating them, this would be an instance of quid pro quo sexual harassment. Alternatively, these instances could include threats made for not complying with these requests. For example, an instance where a boss threatens to fire an employee if they refuse to have sexual relations with them.

What counts as pregnancy discrimination?

If you are pregnant or planning to become pregnant, you may be concerned to tell your boss. You may worry about the potential for discrimination. Alternatively, if your employer already knows you are pregnant, you may wonder if you are being treated unfairly as a result.

You should not need to worry about pregnancy discrimination, and you may have more rights that you realize. Unfortunately, your concerns could be valid because pregnancy discrimination still does occur in many workplaces.

D.C. Circuit issues a decision that addresses anew the tension that can arise from activity that is allegedly protected under the NLRA, when that activity also potentially creates a sexually or racially hostile work environment.

On December 31, 2019, the D.C. Circuit issued a decision that addresses anew the tension that can arise from activity that is allegedly protected under the NLRA, when that activity also potentially creates a sexually or racially hostile work environment.

Here, an employer changed its procedures for requesting overtime, which led to some employees calling the bulletin board where the overtime sheets were posted the "whore board." One employee wrote that term on the board, which caused the employer to fire that employee. This resulted in an NLRB petition that ended up with a Board ruling in favor of the employee, but the Board did not consider the employer's argument that it had to fire the employee in order to address or remedy the sexually hostile work environment that this term created in the workplace. The D.C. Circuit reverses the NLRB, and remanded for the agency to consider that argument. Judge Millett (who was on the panel) had raised a similar argument in a concurring opinion several years ago.

Hints that discrimination might be part of a larger problem

Have you been working for a company for years now and notice your boss overlooks you for promotions? Are you starting to wonder if it's because your education background doesn't match or if it's your skin color? Are you beginning to see patterns?

If so, you could be experiencing discrimination at your workplace. When people think of discrimination, protected classes come to mind, such as race, disability, sexual orientation, religion, etc. Still, most employers have ways to go around wrongfully terminating or discriminating against underrepresented demographics.

Reacting to retaliation in the workplace

When an employee makes a complaint about discrimination or harassment in the workplace, they have the right to be protected from retaliation as a result. This means that they should not fear being punished in some way by their employer when their employer learns that they have made a complaint.

However, retaliation does continue to be a significant issue in the workplace. This is why it is important that those who have recently made a complaint make themselves familiar with the definition of retaliation. They should also know how to take legal action to assert their rights.

Am I able to make a sexual harassment claim?

It's common for those who have had an unpleasant experience at work to wonder if they can make a sexual harassment claim. Many people worry that they will be accused of making a big deal out of nothing or be retaliated against by their employer because they took legal action.

Sexual harassment in the workplace is a huge problem and can occur as a result of just one incident or as a result of many minor incidents that are pervasive enough to cause a hostile working environment. If you are unsure of whether the experience you had at work could constitute sexual harassment, you should consider whether the incident included one of the following characteristics.

How the Whistleblower Protection Act applies to you

As a federal employee, you may witness actions that you know or believe to be wrongful or illegal. You would be doing the right thing by alerting the appropriate person or agency, such as senior management, the agency Inspector General, or Congress. However, in doing so, your employer could take unfavorable actions against you.

What paternity leave rights do new fathers have?

Our society places significant emphasis on the rights of working mothers when they give birth and seek maternity leave while maintaining their employment. However, working mothers can also benefit from the help of the child's father. Close collaboration when it comes to parenting can help the child greatly.  At the same time, it can also help both parents to share family responsibilities so that they can better manage their careers.

The federal Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) covers around 50% of the national workforce and gives rights to employees who need to take time away from work for medical or family reasons.  Washington D.C., and some states (including Maryland) have their own FMLA laws that cover smaller employers who are exempt from the federal law.  These federal and state statutes usually require that the parent have worked for a number of months before they are eligible to take FMLA leave. 

Do jokes and comments count as sexual harassment?

Most Washington, D.C., residents understand that the definition of sexual harassment covers actions such as forced physical contact or requests for sexual favors in exchange for employment. Other actions may be harder to classify. If you are experiencing unwelcome jokes or discussions at work that are sexual in nature, you may be able to file a harassment complaint. However, it is sometimes more difficult to determine whether words and jokes qualify as sexual harassment.

RAINN is a national anti-sexual-violence organization that provides information and help to survivors. RAINN's website offers detailed information on sexual harassment in the workplace. According to the site, sexual harassment laws may not cover some types of sexual jokes and comments even if they cause negative emotional effects. However, certain types of speech do fall under sexual harassment laws. For example, you may be able to file a complaint against someone in your office who continuously makes disparaging remarks about your sexual orientation or about people of a specific gender.

Recognizing discriminatory behaviors against whistleblowers

When people work for an employer they admire, chances are they hope to have a positive experience and without hazards, threats to their career or safety, or discriminatory behavior. Unfortunately, there are situations where an employer acts illegally or unprofessionally, with negative consequences for the customers, investors, and employees.

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