Accord­ing to the Illi­nois Human Rights Act, sex­u­al harass­ment is defined as:

Any unwel­come sex­u­al advances or requests for sex­u­al favors or any con­duct of a sex­u­al nature when:

(A) sub­mis­sion to such con­duct is made either explic­it­ly or implic­it­ly a term or con­di­tion of any individual’s employment.

(B) sub­mis­sion to or rejec­tion of such con­duct by an indi­vid­ual is used as the basis for employ­ment deci­sions affect­ing such indi­vid­ual, or

(C)  such con­duct has the pur­pose or effect of sub­stan­tial­ly inter­fer­ing with an individual’s work per­for­mance or cre­at­ing an intim­i­dat­ing, hos­tile, or offen­sive work­ing environment.

The courts have deter­mined that sex­u­al harass­ment is a form of dis­crim­i­na­tion under Title VII of the U.S. Civ­il Rights Act of 1964, as amend­ed in 1991.

One such exam­ple is a case where a qual­i­fied indi­vid­ual is denied employ­ment oppor­tu­ni­ties and ben­e­fits that are, instead, award­ed to an indi­vid­ual who sub­mits (vol­un­tar­i­ly or under coer­cion) to sex­u­al advances or sex­u­al favors.  Anoth­er exam­ple is where an indi­vid­ual must sub­mit to unwel­come sex­u­al con­duct in order to receive an employ­ment opportunity.

Oth­er con­duct com­mon­ly con­sid­ered to be sex­u­al harass­ment includes:

  • Ver­bal:  Sex­u­al innu­en­dos, sug­ges­tive com­ments, insults, rumor and jokes about sex, anato­my or gen­der-spe­­cif­ic traits, sex­u­al propo­si­tions, threats, repeat­ed requests for dates, or state­ments about oth­er employ­ees, even out­side of their pres­ence, of a sex­u­al nature.
  • Non-Ver­bal:  Sug­ges­tive or insult­ing sounds (whistling), leer­ing, obscene ges­tures, sex­u­al­ly bod­i­ly ges­tures, “cat­calls”, “smack­ing” or “kiss­ing” noises.
  • Visu­al:  Posters, signs, pin-up or slo­gans of a sex­u­al nature.
  • Phys­i­cal:  Touch­ing, unwel­come hug­ging or kiss­ing, pinch­ing, brush­ing the body, coerced sex­u­al inter­course, or actu­al assault.

Sex­u­al harass­ment most fre­quent­ly involves a man harass­ing a woman.  How­ev­er, it can also involve a woman harass­ing a man or harass­ment between mem­bers of the same gender.

The most severe and overt forms of sex­u­al harass­ment are eas­i­er to deter­mine.  On the oth­er end of the spec­trum, some sex­u­al harass­ment is more sub­tle and depends to some extent on indi­vid­ual per­cep­tion and inter­pre­ta­tion.  The trend in the Courts is to assess sex­u­al 
harass­ment by a stan­dard of what would offend a “rea­son­able woman” or a “rea­son­able man”, depend­ing on the gen­der of the alleged victim.

An exam­ple of the most sub­tle form of sex­u­al harass­ment is the use of endear­ments.  The use of terms such as “hon­ey”, “dar­ling”, and “sweet­heart”, is objec­tion­able to many women who believe that these terms under­mine their author­i­ty and their abil­i­ty to deal with men on an equal and pro­fes­sion­al level.

Anoth­er exam­ple is the use of a com­pli­ment that could poten­tial­ly be inter­pret­ed as sex­u­al in nature.  Below are three state­ments that might be made about the appear­ance of a woman in the workplace:

That’s an attrac­tive dress you have on.”

That’s an attrac­tive dress, it real­ly looks good on you.”

That’s an attrac­tive dress.  You real­ly fill it out well.”

The first state­ment appears to be sim­ply a com­pli­ment.  The last is the most like­ly to be per­ceived as sex­u­al harass­ment, depend­ing on the indi­vid­ual per­cep­tions and val­ues.  To avoid the pos­si­bil­i­ty of offend­ing an employ­ee, it is best to fol­low a course of con­duct above reproach, or to err on the side of caution.