Woman giving gift to man

When Gift Giving At Work Becomes Sexual Harassment

By Douglas Lipsky

Gift-giving at work is common during the holidays. While this is a nice way to acknowledge employees and coworkers, unwanted gifts can create a hostile work environment. If you receive gifts of a sexual or romantic nature from your boss or a coworker, you may have a valid sexual harassment claim

Sexual Gift-Giving And Harassment In the Workplace

It is inappropriate for a supervisor or coworker to give another a sexual gift, regardless of whether it is intended to be a joke or a sexual advance. More than making the recipient feel awkward and uncomfortable, sexual gift-giving is considered sexual harassment. There are two types of sexual harassment – quid pro quo and hostile work environment. 

Quid pro quo harassment occurs when a person in a position of authority makes unwanted sexual advances or demands in exchange for a benefit of employment, such as a raise or promotion. A hostile work environment arises when an employee is subjected to offensive comments, conduct, or displays of a sexual nature. 

In short, sexual gift-giving may be a form of quid pro quo harassment if the giver is a supervisor trying to send a not-so-subtle message to the employee. An unwanted sexual gift can also create a hostile environment, regardless of who the giver is – a supervisor, coworker, or third party (e.g. client, customer, vendor).

Examples of Unwanted Gifts

Gag gifts are common at office parties. However, gifts of a sexual or romantic nature constitute sexual harassment. Examples include:

  • Lingerie
  • Romantic jewelry
  • Personal care products
  • Perfume
  • Sex toys

Although the intent of a romantic gift may differ from that of a sexual gift, a romantic gift can also create discomfort, and a hostile work environment, especially when the recipient does not have any romantic feelings for the giver. 

What To Do If You Received A Sexual Gift At Work

If you have received a sexual or romantic gift from anyone at work, tell the giver the gift is unwanted and not to do it again. Also, report the gift to another supervisor or human resources personnel. 

If the giver was a supervisor or other person in a position of authority, your employer may be strictly liable. If the giver was a coworker or third party, your employer might be liable if they knew about the unwanted gift and failed to take corrective action. This is the time to call an experienced sexual harassment lawyer. 

While no two sexual harassment claims are the same, you may be entitled to significant compensation. You might be reluctant to come forward; however, your employer cannot legally retaliate against you for complaining about sexual harassment. This means your employer cannot take adverse action against you (e.g. firing, demoting, disciplining) for reporting the gift giver. 

Why This Matters

There’s nothing wrong with spreading holiday cheer in the workplace. But sexual gift-giving is considered sexual harassment, which is illegal. If you received a sexual or romantic gift from a supervisor or coworker, talk to an employment lawyer.

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.