Harassment Prevention Policies and Guidelines

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What is Sexual Harassment?

Other Types of Unlawful Harassment?

What is the Reasonable Person Standard?

Federal and State Regulations Regarding Sexual Harassment

SPU's Sexual Harassment Policy and Procedure (includes link to staff policy)

Supervisor Responsibilities and Liabilities

What is Sexual Harassment?

Sexual harassment is unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature. Unwelcome sexual conduct is unlawful when such conduct either (1) is made a term or condition of an individual’s employment or (2) has the purpose of effect of unreasonably interfering with an individual’s work performance or creating an intimidating, hostile or offensive working environment. There are Two Types of Sexual Harassment as defined by the Courts:

"Quid Pro Quo"

"Something for something:" This type of sexual harassment usually involves supervisors who use:

  • Threats - firing, blocking promotion, transferring, or giving a bad evaluation, if a person does not go along with sexual advances.
  • Rewards - hiring, promoting, or giving a raise if a person does go along.
  • For Example: A female secretary is told by her boss that her job will be upgraded if she goes along with his demands for sexual favors.
  • A male file clerk is promised a promotion to assistant office manager if he agrees to have an affair with the female office manager.

"Hostile Environment"

This covers regular and repeated actions, or things displayed around the workplace that "unreasonably interfere" with job performance or create an "intimidating, hostile or offensive" work environment.

Examples: Invitation for dates which do not stop when the response is negative; uninvited and deliberate touching or "accidental" brushing against a person’s body; uninvited "friendly" pats, squeezes, pinches, neck rubs, or other forms of physical contact; uninvited letters, phone calls or gifts, sexually explicit or suggestive materials such as pinups or sexually degrading cartoons posted in the work site; uninvited sexually suggestive looks, constant leering, ogling or gestures; uninvited sexual teasing, remarks or questions regarding an employee’s personal life.

Usually a single incidence of nonphysical sexual conduct will not create an offensive work environment. Generally a pattern of offensive conduct is required when nonphysical sexual conduct is involved.

Other Types of Unlawful Harassment

Any type of harassing behavior may be unlawful if it involves discriminatory treatment on the basis of race, color, sex, religion, national origin, age of 40 or older, disability, or protected activity under the anti-discriminatory statutes (Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, Title IX of the Higher Education Act, etc.).  However, the anti-discrimination statutes are not meant to be general codes.  According to the EEOC Enforcement Guidance, "simple teasing, offhand comments, or isolated incidents that are not extremely serious are not prohibited.  Rather, the conduct must be so objectively offensive as to alter the conditions of the victim's employment."  Furthermore, "the conditions of employment are altered only if the harassment culminated in a tangible employment action or was sufficiently severe or pervasive to create a hostile work environment."

The Reasonable Person Standard

A person who is experiencing a repeated pattern of the above may feel like such behaviors make it almost impossible to be productive at work. Courts apply the reasonable person standard test asking "what would a reasonable person think is out of bounds or interferes with work?" If a "reasonable person" would consider the conduct sufficiently severe to create an abusive working environment, a violation of Title Vll has occurred.

Because supervisors are in a position of power, they must be especially sensitive of the way their actions and interactions with employees are or could be perceived. A clear understanding of what constitutes sexual harassment is absolutely essential to a supervisor in terms of preventing harassment in their work group and preventing claims of harassment against them.

Federal & State Regulations Regarding Sexual Harassment

  • Sexual harassment is against the law. Sexual harassment is sex discrimination under Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Under these laws, educational institutions are responsible for preventing sexual harassment of their students and employees. Sexual harassment is also a violation of campus policy.
  • Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex. Although the statue was enacted in ‘64, it was not until the mid 70’s that federal courts began to address the issue of sexual harassment as a prohibited form of discrimination.
  • Washington Law against discrimination provides that it is an unfair practice for any employer to discriminate against any person in compensation or in other terms or conditions of employment because of sex.

Federal Employment Law Chart

Sexual Harassment Policy and Procedures 

  • Procedure (see full policy in Staff Handbook)   
  • Grievance Officers
    • VP of Student Life
    • Faculty Representative
    • Director of Human Resources

Grievance Officers will not always handle a complaint on a formal basis using the formal process, however, the key is to take immediate and appropriate action to resolve a complaint. That may mean a more informal process depending on the circumstances.  

Supervisors should not hesitate to contact a grievance officer if an employee comes to them with a comment or complaint of questionable or inappropriate behavior. The role of the grievance officer is to give advice to those who are either unsure about whether or not they’ve been sexually harassed, but who are feeling uncomfortable in their work environment, or to those wishing to file a sexual harassment grievance. The grievance officer will facilitate the grievance procedure or other appropriate action.


    Accusations of sexual harassment can cause extreme pain and hardship on both those accusing and those being accused. It is very important that all matters pertaining to a complaint of sexual harassment be kept as confidential as possible and shared only on a need to know basis.

    It is not uncommon for alleged harassers to file libel and slander suits. Information should only be shared on a need-to-know basis.  If someone you work with brings a complaint to your attention you should immediately refer them to one of the grievance officers and advise them not to discuss their complaint with others. Document all conversations carefully!

No Retaliation

    The SPU Policy states that alleged harassers must not retaliate against complainants and that if they do or are perceived as doing so, serious disciplinary action will be taken.  Employees must be warned against engaging in any behavior that may be perceived as retaliatory.

Supervisor Responsibilities

Supervisors must be keenly aware of their obligation to create a work environment that is free from harassment or discrimination.  According to the EEOC's Guidance on Vicarious Liability, "An employer is always liable when a supervisor engages in harassment that culminates in a tangible employment action."  

  • Don't ignore harassing behavior or informal complaints!  The EEOC states, "Employers must exercise reasonable care to prevent and correct promptly any harassing behavior."  You have an obligation to effectively respond to a complaint, even if the employee later tells you that they're not interested in filing a formal complaint.  
  • Be aware of your special responsibility to be knowledgeable about sexual harassment and be sensitive to its impact on others.
  • Try to create a learning and working environment that actively discourages behavior that could be viewed as risky or sexually harassing, both by clearly informing others about expectations for appropriate professional behavior in the workplace and by serving as a behavioral role model.
  • Make certain that those you supervise are familiar with the University’s policy on sexual harassment and grievance procedures.
  • Encourage reporting, treat incidents seriously, respond quickly, respect confidentiality and prohibit retaliation against anyone who files a complaint.

The University’s liability rests in whether or not immediate and appropriate action is taken on a claim of harassment. As a supervisor, you have the responsibility to act quickly when you hear of a complaint. You must not promise someone who is sharing their situation with you that you can keep it confidential as the University could be held liable for inaction when they "knew or should have known about a sexual harassment complaint". As a supervisor, the University depends on you to keep your area free from liability. When in doubt about how to follow through on a claim of harassment or something you think might qualify as harassment, immediately contact one of the University’s grievance officers.

Questions and Answers

1. Can men be sexually harassed?

2. In my department, we give each other friendly hugs and pats on the back from time to time. Should supervisors be concerned about this?

3. If the complaint involves a person who works with the University but is not employed here (vendors and independent contractors), are we required to do anything?

4. What about consensual relationships?

5. As a supervisor, what should I do if someone comes to me with a compliant?

    Question 1: Can men be sexually harassed?

    A: Yes. Sexual harassment has a lot to do with power. Women in positions of power have been accused of sexually harassing male subordinates. Also, homosexual or bisexual people have been accused of sexually harassing subordinates or colleague of the same sex.

    Question 2: In my department, we give each other friendly hugs and pats on the back from time to time. Should supervisors be concerned about this?

    A: Remember, whether or not a person feels sexually harassed depends on the feelings of the receiver of the treatment. Where one person may feel perfectly comfortable with an occasional hug, or pat on the arm, another person may take offense. Remember that the courts will apply the "reasonable person" standard. Use your best judgment, but your best bet is to err on the side of no physical contact especially if you’re in a position of power (which supervisors often are).

    Question 3: If the complaint involves a person who works with the University, but is not employed here (vendors and independent contractors), are we required to do anything?

    A: Yes. The University is responsible to take action on employee complaints regardless if the alleged harasser is a regular employee or an independent contractor. As a supervisor, you should keep your eyes open!

    Question 4: What about consensual relationships?

    A: Many people find their life mate through an employment relationship. Where dating in the workplace becomes a problem is when a relationship turns sour. For example, a supervisor is dating her subordinate. The subordinate breaks up with the supervisor. The supervisor then promotes another employee. Regardless of whether the promotion was legitimate, the employee may claim discrimination/sexual harassment. Or, if two peer employees are dating and then employee A breaks up with employee B. Employee B can’t live without employee A and repeatedly pursues employee A (sometimes at work) against employee A’s wishes. Employee A may claim hostile environment sexual harassment. Keep a watchful eye on consensual relationships within your department.

    Question 5: As a supervisor, what should I do if someone comes to me with a complaint?

    A: It depends on the situation. If one of your subordinates confides in you that they are uncomfortable with the treatment another member of the department is directing towards them, but they don’t want to talk to anyone about it, you do have a responsibility to act as an agent of the University. Don’t promise confidentiality.

    If what’s being described is discomfort with an "offhand" comment where there’s no pattern, or for an example, a shoulder rub where there’s no pattern, it may be best to advise the employee to make it clear to their coworker that the behavior is causing discomfort and to "please stop". If you choose this route, be sure to follow up with the complaining employee at a later date, encourage the employee to talk to a grievance officer if the treatment does not improve, keep your conversations confidential where appropriate, document everything, and feel free to contact a grievance officer for advice. But remember, you must take some immediate and appropriate action.

    If what’s being described is blatant physical touching or "quid pro quo" in nature, ask the employee to report it immediately to a grievance officer and if they refuse, you must do so on their behalf.

Send mail to womelg@spu.edu with questions or comments about this web site.
Contact info modified: May 1, 2008
Document last modified: November 03, 1999