Debunking Sexual Harassment Myths

By Douglas Lipsky


It’s no big deal if a person is harassed; it’s all done in “good fun.”

It truly is a myth to think that things that are done jokingly are all in good fun, just one of the guys kind of thing, that’s the way we’ve always done it here, you know, we always joke around, you know, we’ve all worked here for 20 years, we’re friends with one another, it’s really a myth to think that those types of scenarios, or that type of work environment, is one in which you can’t have sexual harassment. You can have sexual harassment in any work environment and joking around is not an excuse. It’s not the intent of the person telling the joke that matters under the law. What matters is how you as a worker in that environment perceive that comment and not only how you perceive that comment but how it affects you. And the fact that someone says, “Oh it was just a joke” really doesn’t change that. It doesn’t forgive it. It certainly doesn’t excuse it.

There is a profile of a typical harasser.

There’s absolutely no profile and there’s no typical harasser. Harassers come in all shapes and sizes. They come in all races, religions, and genders. Throughout my career, I’ve handled cases where the harasser is a woman. I’ve handled cases where the harasser is a man. I’ve handled cases where it’s same-sex harassment, so it’s you know one homosexual employee is harassing another homosexual employee. It really goes back to what’s the definition of hostile work environment. And it doesn’t matter who the perpetrator is.

Only men can sexually harass women.

It is a myth that only men can sexually harass women. Women can sexually harass men. Men can sexually harass other men. Women can sexually harass other women. For example, you may have two co-workers, one could be of a woman who comes into the office after a weekend, long weekend, and is asking her male coworker about his weekend. But she’s probing into things like his sexual exploits, and did he have a date this weekend, and did they have sex on the date this weekend; types of things that someone may feel uncomfortable talking about in a work environment. You know, similarly, those same types of questions between one woman and another woman may offend that other woman. So you really have to be mindful of the things you talk about in work. It’s not just the stereotypical man on woman’s sexual harassment that the law is designed to prevent.

There is nothing that can be done about sexual harassment.

It is a myth that there’s nothing that can be done about sexual harassment. And that’s particularly true now, in this day and age, with the #metoo movement and some of the recent amendments as a result of the #metoo movement that we’ve had particularly in New York State in New York City Laws, where employers have now been required to beef up their employment policies and practices. Employers are now required to have an actual complaint form that gives you certain information as the victim of harassment to help keep you informed of what your rights are and what your options are. The complaint form is also designed to allow you to give the specifics of your complaint. So the laws are trying to make it easier for people to complain, obviously particularly women to complain, about sexual harassment and the laws are are really getting stronger. And when I say the laws in this regard it’s really more the implementation of the laws because the law is always prohibited retaliation against an individual who complains about harassment, but companies are becoming much more sensitive to that. And we as plaintiffs’ lawyers are becoming much more aggressive in pursuing claims where an employee has been retaliated against because he or she complained of harassment.

Harassment requires physical contact.

No, harassment doesn’t require physical contact. Verbal expressions and doesn’t even have to be verbal, you could be posting things in your workspace that someone else could find offensive. I had a case several years ago where employees left a noose. They took a rope and tied it into a noose and left it in an African-American co-workers locker. Obviously, that’s creating a hostile work environment and I didn’t even have to touch him, I didn’t even have to say anything to him.

About the Author
Douglas Lipsky is a co-founding partner of Lipsky Lowe LLP. He has extensive experience in all areas of employment law, including discrimination, sexual harassment, hostile work environment, retaliation, wrongful discharge, breach of contract, unpaid overtime, and unpaid tips. He also represents clients in complex wage and hour claims, including collective actions under the federal Fair Labor Standards Act and class actions under the laws of many different states. If you have questions about this article, contact Douglas today.