Sexual Harassment without Sexual Advances at Workplace

It is a common tactic for an employer to defend an employee’s claims of sexual harassment at workplace by arguing that because the conduct in question towards the victim wasn’t “sexual enough,” she cannot state a valid claim for sexual harassment. This is exactly what happened in Birschtein v. New United Motor Manufacturing, Inc. (2001). In that case, a forklift driver’s conduct included asking a female co-worker (Birschtein) out on a date 3-4 times, telling her that he had sexual fantasies about her in the most explicit detail, staring at her, and according to co-workers, driving around and looking for her when she was not around.

The defendant employer argued that its conduct did not amount to actionable sexual harassment because it was not “based on sex.” The court disagreed. Relying on prior, well established case law on sexual harassment, the Court stated that sexual harassment hostile work environment need not have anything to do with sexual advances. Hostile work environment shows itself in the form of intimidation and hostility for the purpose of interfering with an individual’s work performance.

Hostile environment sexual harassment may occur even if gender is a substantial factor in the discrimination and that if the claimant had been a man, she would not have been treated in the same manner. In other words, to constitute impermissible discrimination, the offensive conduct is not necessarily required to include sexual overtones.