Sexual Harassment at Work

Sexual harassment is a form of employment discrimination that is prohibited under both Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and San Diego State University policy. In general, sexual harassment means any unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and unwelcome verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature.

There are two forms of sexual harassment.
  1. Sexual harassment entails some sort of exchange. Quid pro quo is a Latin phrase meaning “something for something.” Typically, an employee must submit to unwelcome sexual conduct in exchange for receiving a term or condition of employment, such as a promotion, benefits, or the job itself. If unwelcome sexual conduct unreasonably interferes with an employee’s work performance or creates an intimidating, hostile, or offensive work environment, the employer may also be liable for sexual harassment. This form of sexual harassment is known as hostile environment.
  2. Generally, for such conduct to be sexual harassment, it must be sufficiently severe or pervasive to alter the conditions of the victim’s employment and create an abusive working environment. Continuous expressions of sexual jokes, vulgar or obscene language, suggestive innuendo or touching — all might characterize a hostile environment. One episode of such behavior, although offensive, likely would not constitute sexual harassment; however, when the behavior occurs so frequently that it is pervasive in the work setting, a hostile environment may exist.

The employer is responsible for sexual harassment by its supervisory personnel — regardless of whether the specific acts complained of were authorized or even forbidden by the employer, and regardless of whether the employer knew or should have known of their occurrence.

An employer may also be liable for actions of persons other than supervisors who commit sexual harassment. Unless it can show that it took immediate and appropriate corrective action, an employer may be liable for sexual harassment between fellow employees if the employer (or its supervisors) knew or should have known of the conduct. The employer may even be responsible for sexual harassment that is exhibited by non-employees (such as outside vendors, service persons, etc.) if the employer knew or should have known of the conduct.

A victim of sexual harassment in the workplace may file a lawsuit against not only the employer, but also against the individual (supervisor, fellow employee or non-employee) who engaged in the harassing conduct. A plaintiff in a sexual harassment lawsuit may obtain compensatory damages (to replace the loss caused by the conduct) and punitive damages (to remedy mental anguish or punish wrongful conduct).

In regards to SDSU policy, an employee proven to have engaged in sexual harassment is also subject to disciplinary action up to and including reprimand, mandatory attendance at sexual harassment training programs, suspension, demotion, and dismissal (loss of tenure). Sexual harassment, per se, is never within the scope and course of employment.

Before complaints have the opportunity to arise, it is important that all employees are made aware of what sexual harassment is, and the implications of engaging in such behavior. This can be done through attendance at workshops and by becoming familiar with the Sexual Harassment Policy.

The law requires that an employer investigate every complaint of sexual harassment in the workplace. Accordingly, SDSU has held that supervisors, managers, administrators and faculty who disregard or fail to report claims of sexual harassment (whether alleged by the person who is the subject of sexual harassment or a witness) are in violation of SDSU policy. Upon learning of allegations of sexual harassment from the alleged victim, deans, directors, department chairs, and other officers of the university shall report the allegations to the Office of Employee Relations and Compliance within five working days. A person receiving such a claim may contact the Office of Employee Relations and Compliance for guidance at 619-594-6464.

Every employee of San Diego State University must avoid offensive or inappropriate sexual or sexually harassing behavior at work. Employees who feel they are being harassed are encouraged to inform perceived offenders of this policy that the commentary or conduct is offensive and unwelcome. An employee who experiences sexual harassment at work is urged to report such conduct to the direct attention of the employee’s supervisor, dean director, department chair or other officers of the university. If the complaint involves an employee’s supervisor or someone in the direct line of supervision, or if the employee for any reason is uncomfortable in dealing with an immediate supervisor, the employee may contact the Office of Employee Relations and Compliance directly.

It is illegal to retaliate against anyone reporting or thought to have reported sexual harassment behaviors or who is a witness or otherwise is involved in a sexual harassment proceeding. Encouraging others to retaliate also is illegal. Sanctions imposed for retaliatory behavior by a faculty or staff member shall include but not be limited to reprimand, suspension, demotion, and dismissal (loss of tenure). The sanctions imposed for retaliatory behavior by a student shall include but not be limited to probation, suspension, and expulsion.

Internal complaint procedures for allegations of sexual harassment are contained in a pamphlet available from Office of Employee Relations and Compliance. While employees are encouraged to use these procedures for resolution of sexual harassment concerns, they also have the right to file complaints with appropriate state and federal agencies. Such agencies include the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and the California State Department of Fair Employment and Housing.