What Is Sexual Harassment, Legally Speaking?

Sexual harassment is a concept that can feel vague for some folks. It does, however, have a clearly defined legal definition. There are two core kinds of sexual harassment: the quid pro quo variety and the environmental kind. Both types are generally thought of as occurring in places of work, although many educational institutions and non-profit organizations also have harassment policies that aren't covered by EEOC rules. Let's take a look at both kinds from the perspective of someone who provides sexual harassment attorney services.

Quid Pro Quo Harassment

The idea behind any quid pro quo sexual harassment, legally speaking, is that sexual conduct is made a condition of someone's employment. Notably, the harassed party does not have to accept the quid pro quo in order to have a complaint. If they believe that the rejection of an offer has led to a change in how they're treated at work, to being passed over for a promotion or to termination of their job, they may be able to pursue a case.

Environmental Harassment

This kind of harassment is the more open-ended variety. It covers a wide range of actions and inactions by parties in a workplace, including physical, verbal, and visual conveyances of sexual intent. With the rise of technological communications, any electronic communication of a message with a similar meaning can also be considered harassing. Unwanted sexual advances, bullying, intimidation, and abusiveness all are considered sexual harassment.

Remarks about a person's sex are considered sexual harassment, even if the statements don't hint at sexual acts. For example, demeaning remarks made about women in general can be determined harassing.

Establishing a Pattern

Quid pro quo sexual harassment can occur in single instances, but most types of environmental harassment need to be a part of a large pattern of conduct. A sexual harassment attorney can use the discovery process to turn up evidence of such patterns, including emails, texts, and phone messages. They also can seek records on hirings, promotions, and firings to present as evidence in both quid pro quo cases and pattern-based ones. Details of internal complaints may be subpoenaed, too.


Federal law requires complaints to be filed within 180 days of the last incident. Victims can be of either sex, and so can perpetrators. In addition to officers of a company and its employees, harassment complaints may also include cases involving the behavior of clients and customers.