Hollywood....politics....journalism. Accusations, and admissions, of sexual harassment in the workplace have become rampant in recent weeks, as Americans struggle to reconcile the thought of people they know, respect and even love, engaging in bad behavior. The accusations have shifted the spotlight to the only question that matters: what constitutes sexual harassment in the workplace? An answer that needs to be black and white is, instead, covered in grey area.
"It is very scary out there today with this stuff going on. How far can you go? I don't know. There's no good answer to that question," says Attorney Mark Wolber. "It could be off color jokes, it could be sexual advances, it could be touching, it could be showing people pornographic material; but it has to be unwelcome."
Sexual harassment can fall under three areas: stringent federal law, under Title IX, which protects against gender discrimination. To pursue legal action here, a minimum of 15 employees are required. Often, a course of conduct is required, too, as opposed to one incident. State law is less stringent; no 15 employee requirement. New York is an at-will hire state, meaning no cause is required to fire someone. Then, there's individual company policy, which employers are free to craft and could be quite strict.
Attorney Wolber says many people simply may not know what is and isn't acceptable, because, aside from providing guidelines, the law doesn't spell it out.
"If they give specific parameters, and they gave us guidelines as to what we can do, so it said, 'if you ask someone out for a meal, that will bsexual harassment. if you comment favorably on someone's clothing, that will not be sexual harassment, so that people know how far they can go and still be within the bounds of the law," said Wolber.