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Sexual Harassment: It's About Power

Sexual Harassment is:

Any UNWELCOME sexual advances, requests for sexual favors or other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature, when: 

    • submission to the conduct is either an explicit or implicit term of employment; 
    • submission to or rejection of the conduct is used as a basis for employment decisions; or
    • the conduct has the purpose or effect of interfering with an individual's work performance or creates an intimidating, hostile, or offensive work environment.

  • It can include UNWELCOME sexually-directed behavior, such as: 
    • assault; 
    • physical abuse (touching, pinching, cornering); 
    • verbal abuse (propositions, lewd comments, sexual insults); and 
    • visual abuse (leering or display of pornographic materials designed to embarrass or intimidate an employee).

Sexual harassment is illegal:

The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that sexual harassment is illegal sex discrimination covered by Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. It subjects the worker to adverse employment conditions having nothing to do with job performance. Sometimes it is accomplished by threats of adverse job actions or promises of raises or promotions. It is also sexual harassment when a worker is subjected to sexual insults, jokes, pictures or other inappropriate sexual references which create a hostile work environment.

  • Federal guidelines state that management is legally responsible for the actions of its employees, and even non-employees, if it knew or should have known of the problem and did nothing to stop it. 
  • The victim, as well as the harasser, may be a man or woman. The U.S. Supreme Court has also ruled that the victim and the harasser do not have to be of the opposite sex.

What the union can do

  • Educate — Survey the members; discuss sexual harassment laws and prevention at meetings; show films and distribute information; train stewards; and make sure members know what to do if they are sexually harassed. 
  • Create a climate where sexual harassment is not tolerated — Discuss the issue at labor/management meetings; get management to issue a strong policy statement; pass resolutions at union conventions. 
  • Know the procedures — Examine the grievance procedure and the anti-discrimination clauses in your contract to make sure they are effective. 
  • When sexual harassment does occur, act effectively to protect the members — Offer support; investigate; file appropriate grievances.

What to do if you are sexually harassed on the job:

  • Don't think it is your fault. 
  • Seek support from family and friends. 
  • Object. Speak to the harasser and be specific about what behavior you find unwelcome. 
  • Tell the harasser in writing that you object to his or her behavior. Be specific and keep a copy of the letter. 
  • Speak to other workers in the work area. Ask if anyone else has had a problem with the harasser. 
  • Keep a log. Write down what happened, including exactly what was said or done, the names of any witnesses, and the date, time and location of the incident(s). Save any letters, cards or notes in a secure place, preferably at home. 
  • Keep records of your job evaluations, assignments and promotions. 
  • Speak to your union steward. Your union steward should be able to assist you in filing a grievance or other complaint with the employer. 
  • Speak to your supervisor. If the harasser is your supervisor, speak to the supervisor's supervisor. Bring your log and any documentation that you have. 
  • If these steps don't solve the problem, file a formal complaint with your state human rights agency or the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. 
  • Consult an attorney experienced in sexual harassment cases. Remember that sexual harassment is against the law. 
  • File criminal charges with the police if you were assaulted or raped.


AFSCME Education & Leadership Training Department 

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Washington, DC 20036
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