Sexual Harassment at Work: A Guide for Tennessee Workers
In Tennessee, sexual harassment in the workplace is prohibited under state and federal employment laws. Under EEOC law, sexual harassment is best defined as any act entailing unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, or other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature at work. It’s worth noting that the misconduct doesn’t have to be sexual in nature—it can also entail crude or offensive remarks about an individual’s sex, such as making insulting jokes or comments about menstruation within earshot of female employees.
Generally speaking, sexual harassment in the workplace occurs when:
- Submission to such conduct is made either explicitly or implicitly a term or condition of an individual's employment;
- Submission to or rejection of such conduct by an individual is used as a basis for employment decisions affecting the individual; and/or
- Such conduct has the purpose or effect of unreasonably interfering with an individual's work performance or creating an intimidating, hostile, or offensive working environment.
While reporting sexual harassment and other misconduct at work is crucial to maintain a safe and respectful environment, identifying more subtle signs of harassment and discrimination can be significantly more challenging. In our latest blog, we break down some of the lesser-known forms of sexual harassment in Tennessee workplaces to help employees assert their rights when needed.
Keep reading to learn more about addressing sexual harassment at work.
5 Subtle Signs of Sexual Harassment in the Workplace
It's important to recognize and address signs of sexual harassment at work to create a safe and healthy work environment. Keep in mind that it’s imperative to consult with a trusted employment law attorney who can examine the unique circumstances of your case, as there is no one-size-fits-all approach when it comes to employment law disputes matters.
Like many incidents of workplace misconduct, sexual harassment rarely manifests as a textbook definition. More subtle forms of sexual harassment can go undetected by victimized employees, leading many workers to suffer in silence for prolonged periods of time as they remain unaware of their agency to report such instances.
Consider these 5 examples of sexual harassment that frequently go unnoticed in the workplace:
1. Inappropriate Humor or Commentary
Even well-intentioned jokes can result in harm in the workplace. Regardless of the intent behind it, sexual humor or commentary qualifies as a form of sexual harassment at work, as such behaviors can result in an offensive and hostile environment for workers. Examples include sexual innuendos, sexual jokes, or offensive remarks about a worker’s personal life (such as sexual orientation, pronouns, or gender identity).
Microaggressions in the workplace can take the form of insensitive remarks, questions, or comments that may be perceived as offensive to workers with certain characteristics, such as race, religious preferences, or gender. Often, microaggressions are subtle and unintentional acts of workplace discrimination or harassment that manifest as derogatory remarks or actions.
Knowingly or otherwise, microaggressions can target certain individuals or groups based on ethnicity, sexual orientation, religion, or other protected characteristics under the EEOC. While microaggressions can appear harmless or trivial on the surface, they tend to have a cumulative and negative effect on workers’ well-being, belonging, and safety in the workspace. There are various types of microaggressions, including:
- Verbal Microaggressions – These entail comments or statements that subtly convey bias or stereotypes, such as using backhanded compliments, engaging in racially or ethnically insensitive jokes, or making assumptions about someone's abilities, intelligence, or culture based on their identity.
- Behavioral Microaggressions – These actions or behaviors exclude or marginalize individuals or reinforce stereotypes. For instance, consistently interrupting or talking over someone, dismissing their opinions or ideas, or assigning them menial tasks based on stereotypes can be considered examples of behavioral microaggressions.
- Environmental Microaggressions – These microaggressions occur when the physical or social environment sends subtle messages of exclusion or bias, such as a lack of diversity in office decor, displaying culturally insensitive images or symbols, or failure to provide inclusive facilities or resources.
When can microaggressions qualify as sexual harassment at work? Consider the following real-world examples:
- Gender-based stereotyping
- Sexually suggestive comments
- Inappropriate comments on appearance
- Unwanted advances of persistent pursuit due to perceived characteristics (such as one employee pursuing another due to sexual rumors about them even when the pursued turns down the pursuer)
3. Invasion of Personal Space or Privacy
Sexual harassment can also occur through exclusionary behaviors or isolating someone based on their gender or sexual orientation. For example, loitering at another employee’s desk without cause to satisfy a romantic or sexual interest can be classified as sexual harassment in Tennessee.
4. Social Exclusion or Isolation
Workplace exclusion or isolation can also qualify as sexual harassment. It’s important to understand that this isn’t limited to physical behaviors; they can include less obvious acts, such as leaving out an employee during social events or “forgetting” to notify them of important meetings or deadlines due to their gender. As you can imagine, this can negatively impact an employee's professional reputation, performance, opportunities for advancement, and overall workplace experience.
5. Displaying or Disseminating Sensitive Materials
Another subtle type of sexual harassment entails portraying any sort of graphic or sexual imagery that may be perceived as offensive. This isn’t limited to sending materials to an employee directly; rather, it can also take the form of:
- Displaying graphic content where others can see it – For example, using a desktop wallpaper that’s sexually suggestive or using decor that may be perceived as offensive to others (such as sexually explicit posters or signs).
- Making sexual gestures or motions in the workplace – Demonstrating sexually suggestive acts, such as making a “thrusting” motion behind the boss’s back during a meeting, can be perceived as offensive to other employees and qualifies as sexual harassment.
- Disseminating sexually explicit materials to employees about another employee – Suggestive content doesn’t have to land within reach of victimized employees to qualify as sexual harassment. For example, sending an email with sexually explicit comments, images, or rumors about one worker or a group of workers who share protected characteristics can be classified as sexual harassment.
Passionate Advocacy for Mid-South Employees
At Donati Law, PLLC, we exclusively focus on workers’ rights, making us well-equipped to represent employees throughout the Mid-South. With over three decades of experience, you can rely on our passionate employment law attorneys to keep your best interests at heart from start to finish.
Our firm empowers employees to take a stand against unethical employers by fighting to resolve the workplace disputes they’re facing, restoring their peace of mind and financial security. We strongly believe that no one deserves to be mistreated at work, which is why our experienced legal advocates are committed to bettering the lives of hardworking clients in Tennessee and beyond.
If you’ve been mistreated in the workplace, we can help fight for the compensation you deserve. Call (901) 209-5500 to schedule a free consultation.