When does Flirting, Inappropriate Comments, or Repeated, Unwelcomed Requests for a Date Become Sexual Harassment at Work?

Ohio recognizes two types of actionable Sexual Harassment: (1) ‘quid pro quo’ sexual harassment and (2) ‘hostile environment’ harassment. Let us start by examining both types to determine when what may seem initially as unprofessional but ‘harmless’ comments become sexual harassment prohibited under Ohio and Federal Law. 

‘Quid pro quo’ sexual harassment, from the Latin term for "this for that," is just what it sounds like in English – an employer or supervisor makes unwelcome advances or requests a sexual favor and the employee’s submission to the unwelcome advances is an express or implied condition for advancement or favorable job conditions. Another case of quid pro quo sexual harassment occurs where rejection of the sexual advances results in a tangible job detriment, such as termination or demotion. Under Ohio Law the company is strictly liable for the offender’s misconduct.

sexual harassment at work

‘Quid pro quo’ sexual harassment is frequently obvious, where, for instance, a supervisor fires an employee for refusing his sexual advances. In other cases, the supervisor’s misconduct may be more subtle, such as if a supervisor tells an employee that in order to receive a promotion she must dress more revealing or provocatively. 

Hostile work environment sexual harassment occurs when the harassing conduct was sufficiently severe or pervasive to affect the ‘terms, conditions, or privileges of employment,’ or any matter directly or indirectly related to employment. The harassment must have been committed by a supervisor or the employer knew or should have known of the harassment and failed to take immediate and appropriate corrective action. Unlike quid pro quo sexual harassment, the offender does not have to be a supervisor for an employee to have a claim – only that the supervisor knew or should have known but did nothing to stop it. 

In the case of Oncale v. Sundowner Offshore Services, Inc. 523 U.S. 75 (1998), the US Supreme Court held that while Title VII is not general civility code, and that therefore offhand comments, teasing and even verbal or physical harassment are not necessarily prohibited, conduct that affects the employee’s ‘terms, conditions, or privileges of employment’ is prohibited and actionable. So, for example, if a coworker makes one offhand comment on the job a court may not find sexual harassment. However, if the conduct is so severe or pervasive that it affects the employee’s performance of the job itself, a case may be made for sexual harassment. So, in the previous example, if the coworker makes sexual jokes repeatedly or regularly, engages in unwanted touching, or repeatedly asks the coworker out after being turned down there may be a case of hostile work environment if the employer knew or should have known of the actions of its employee but took no action to stop it. 

Victims of sexual harassment at work often initially explain a boss, superior, or coworker’s inappropriate conduct as the offender just being flirty, trying to be funny or cute, or justify the coworker’s advances because he’s “harmless.” However, conduct at the workplace amounting to sexual harassment is inherently destructive and is prohibited by Title VII and the Ohio Laws Against Discrimination. 

Are you or have you been in a situation at work where initially innocuous teasing or [attempted] flirting by a coworker, superior or boss is starting to hinder the performance of your job or affect you personally? There may be a case of Sexual Harassment for which Ohio Law gives you remedies. 

If you are a victim of sexual harassment or were discriminated against at the workplace, and would like to discuss your options with an Ohio Attorney, contact Kevin M. McDermott II of McDermott Law LLC at (216) 367-9181. Mr. McDermott will personally assess your case. Call (216) 367-9181 for a Free Consultation.