Sexual harassment in the workplace can include comments and behaviors that some consider harmless. A hostile work environment can develop when remarks about an employee’s physical appearance cause the victim discomfort. Employees in marginalized groups may feel they must tolerate comments about their physical appearance to fit in or avoid losing their jobs.

If you’ve been the victim of offensive remarks about your physical appearance at work, you may be facing significant stress and dread going to work daily. In New York, sexual harassment in the workplace is prohibited, and you may be entitled to compensation by pursuing a claim against your employer. The compassionate employment attorneys at Lipsky Lowe LLP understand how difficult it is to be subjected to sexual harassment. We will listen carefully to the facts of your case and help you understand your legal rights. 

Comments about Physical Appearance Can Constitute Sexual Harassment

Sometimes, the line between a compliment and sexually harassing comments can be difficult to find. Managers and coworkers may assume they are being nice when they comment about other employees’ physical appearances. For example, a male coworker may tell a female coworker that her dress looks nice today. 

Employees may wonder if it’s acceptable to compliment their colleagues on what they’re wearing or make seemingly benign comments about their gender, religion, race, age, or sexual preferences. When does a compliment to a co-worker become sexual harassment? It’s essential to understand the legal definition of sexual harassment to answer this question.

Common Examples of Comments about Physical Appearance in the Workplace 

When deciding whether a comment constitutes sexual harassment, the person’s tone, body language, and history of making similar remarks are important factors to consider. The following are examples of sexual harassment in the workplace involving remarks about physical appearance:

  • You look irresistible today; you must be meeting with our boss.
  • Let’s get a drink after work to discuss your performance. I think we should celebrate together if you know what I mean.
  • Your butt is looking great since you started working out at the gym.
  • Our sales numbers have increased since we put a picture of you in our marketing material. People want to see beautiful people, right?
  • You look so skinny, have you lost weight?
  • You may want to skip the cake in the breakroom; you look like you’ve put on a few.
  • You need to dress like a lady.

What Constitutes Sexual Harassment in the Workplace?

Sexual harassment is a broad category of behavior. It can include unwelcome sexual advances, unwelcome requests for sexual favors, and unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature. When a comment would cause a reasonable person to be offended, intimidated, or humiliated, the remark can rise to the level of sexual harassment. In many cases, determining whether a specific comment is considered sexual harassment requires consideration of the context in which the comment was said.

For example, suppose a co-worker tells another co-worker, “You look nice today.” If it is delivered with the right intent, many employees would not be offended and interpret the comment as welcome. However, if an employee continues to make comments about another employee’s clothing, especially after they’ve been asked to stop, or when combined with other offensive behavior, sexual harassment has probably occurred. More obviously, sexual comments such as “That skirt makes you look sexy” will make most reasonable people feel offended, humiliated, intimidated, or uncomfortable.

Frequent Remarks About Physical Appearance Can Be Considered Sexual Harassment

When an employer creates an environment where frequent comments about employees’ physical appearances are normalized, they may have created a hostile work environment. Frequent comments regarding clothing choices, sexual preferences, stereotypes about gendered clothing, and people’s physical looks will likely be considered sexual harassment. When a person compliments another person whose primary motive is to make the person feel appreciated and valued as an employee or to build trust, the comment will likely not be considered sexual harassment.

On the other hand, when the primary motivation is to intimidate, establish power, pressure an employee to engage sexually, or violate their boundaries, sexual harassment has likely occurred. Additionally, sexual harassment involving remarks about physical appearance doesn’t always include people of different genders. Historically, women have been the victims of sexual harassment to a higher degree, but men, transgender employees, and gender-nonconforming employees can also suffer harassment based on their physical appearance. 

Sexual Harassment Protections for New York City Workers

Workplace sexual harassment is unlawful under multiple local, state, and federal laws. The New York City Human Rights Act, the New York State Human Rights Act, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination prohibit sexual harassment in the form of a hostile work environment. The remarks and comments must be considered offensive by a reasonable person in similar circumstances to rise to the level of a hostile work environment. 

However, proving that a hostile work environment has occurred is less challenging under the New York City Human Rights laws that only require you to confirm that you’ve been treated differently because of your gender. Consequently, if you can show that you have been the recipient of comments about your physical appearance, you will likely have grounds for a sexual harassment claim.

Contact a Sexual Harassment Attorney in New York City 

Victims of offensive remarks about physical appearance can experience significant stress and anxiety. At Lipsky Lowe LLP, we work diligently to protect New York City employees from harassment and discrimination. We know how to hold employers accountable for engaging in or tolerating sexual harassment in the workplace. When you meet with us, we will help you understand your legal rights and develop an effective strategy for recovering compensation. Don’t hesitate to contact Lipsky Lowe LLP to schedule a complimentary case evaluation.