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Poll finds disagreement on sexual harassment definition

Sexual harassment in the workplace has become a major issue with film producer Harvey Weinstein facing allegations and a "me too" hashtag on social media in which people recount their own experiences with being sexually harassed. Among employees, there could be disagreement about what constitutes sexual harassment, and this could lead to problems for New York employers who are trying to develop a sexual harassment policy. Reuters/Ipsos conducted an online opinion poll from Dec. 13 to 18 and found that most people agreed that kissing and groping without consent was sexual harassment but were divided on other acts.

For example, 47 percent of people said unwanted comments about a person's appearance did not constitute sexual harassment compared to 38 percent who said it was. Respondents were split nearly equally regarding dirty jokes with 41 percent calling it harassment and 44 percent saying it was not. There was a similar split regarding nonconsensual hugging, which 44 percent felt was harassment while 40 percent did not.

There were also differences based on the age, gender and race of respondents. According to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, verbal or physical behavior that is sexual along with unwelcome advances or requesting sexual favors constitute harassment.

Employers who want to develop a sexual harassment policy or who have an employee who is accused of sexual harassment might want to consult an attorney about how to handle the situation. For example, it is important that an employer not appear to be trying to protect its most senior employees from these allegations. Employers might also need to show that an investigation has been carried out. Furthermore, they must avoid the appearance that an employee has been retaliated against for reporting sexual harassment. If an employee must be terminated after making such a report, employers may need to carefully document the reasons for it.

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