When they think of sexual harassment, many people envision a male boss putting pressure on a female employee to have sex with him. But that's not always the case. The stereotype can make it hard for a man to come forward when he finds himself facing inappropriate conduct. He may even wonder, "Can a man sexually harass another man?"
In this blog post, I will discuss what same-gender sexual harassment can look like. I will review EEOC v Discovering Hidden Hawaii Tours, Inc., in which a man is alleged to have harassed several of his male employees. I will also explain what men can do if they are facing sexual harassment at work.
There are laws against gender discrimination at every level of our legal system, from local ordinances to federal laws. They prevent hiring practices and decisions based on a person's sex or gender. At the federal level, Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act says:
“It shall be an unlawful employment practice for an employer . . . to discriminate against any individual with respect to his compensation, terms, conditions, or privileges of employment, because of such individual's ... sex… .”
This includes sexual harassment. The United States Supreme Court first determined that sexual harassment was a form of illegal discrimination in 1986 in a case called Meritor Savings Bank v. Vinson. In that case, as in many that followed it, a female employee was coerced by her male boss into performing sexual acts to keep her job.
But sexual harassment applies in same-gender situations too. In 1997, the Supreme Court decided Oncale v. Sundowner Offshore Services. There a male offshore oil worker was sexually harassed by several male co-workers who verbally abused him and performed physical sexual acts with him. The court noted that Title VII protects men and women from discrimination based on their sex. That includes sexual harassment no matter what the genders of the parties happen to be.
Situations like the one in Oncale continue to happen today. Earlier this year, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), the agency in charge of enforcing Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, sued a tourism company for very similar conduct. The EEOC's complaint says that the president of Discovering Hidden Hawaii Tours developed a pattern of recruiting young men to work for his companies and then sexually harassing them. A decade of sexual harassment of several different employees included:
When employees complained about the president's behavior to their superiors, the company did nothing. This forced some employees to quit. Others faced retaliation from the president for their complaints.
The EEOC took up the case, and has sued the company on behalf of a class of its employees. The lawsuit seeks back pay, compensatory, and punitive damages for the victims, as well as changes to the workplace called injunctive relief. In a statement, Anna Park, regional attorney for the EEOC's Los Angeles District (which covers Hawaii), said:
"All employees, regardless of gender, have the right to work in a harassment-free workplace and should never be forced to endure such abuse. . . . I applaud these young men for coming forward to tell their stories."
If the EEOC's allegations are true, the employees of Discovering Hidden Hawaii Tours, Inc., faced severe sexual harassment. But just because a man isn't forced to expose himself or engage in sex acts doesn't mean he doesn't have a case. The federal definition of sexual harassment is broader than that. It includes patterns of behavior and comments based on or about a person's gender, as long as they are severe or pervasive enough that a reasonable person would feel they were in a hostile working environment. For men this could include:
The more often the conduct or statements happen, the more offensive they are, and the more people become involved, the more likely the EEOC and the federal courts will find that a man has been a victim of sexual harassment.
Men can find themselves the victim of sexual harassment from bosses, managers, supervisors, co-workers, and even customers. When abusive situations occur there are several steps men can take to stand up against sexual harassment at work:
An experienced employment discrimination attorney can meet with you early in the process and make sure everything is done right to protect your claim. At Eisenberg & Baum, LLP, our sexual harassment attorneys will help you collect your documents, file the necessary claims, and represent you in court. Contact us to schedule a consultation. We will help you put an end to sexual harassment at work, so you can get back to your job.