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Sexual harassment awareness on the job—has it changed?

Episodes of Mad Men gave us a glimpse into the sixties work culture, where comments about women’s bodies, clothes and general attractiveness were tolerated, and having a boss who propositioned you was not considered anomalous.

Times changed, rules got stricter, Human Resources started realizing sexual harassment was a big issue and some—but not all—things got better.

Harvey Weinstein to Kevin Spacey

Enter the allegations against Harvey Weinstein, former Miramax co-chairman, and suspicions leveled against Kevin Spacey while he was creative director at the Old Vic, and sexual harassment seems to be in the forefront of every mind.

Or is it? Awareness is important, but reporting harassment and holding the perpetrator accountable is essential. What do you need to know about sexual harassment in the workplace?

First, know that sexual harassment is not just between individuals of opposite genders. Kevin Spacey is a good example. There are many accusations, although as yet not proven, that during his tenure in London he acted inappropriately to male actors and crew who were either direct or indirect employees of his. Assuming that gay sexual harassment doesn’t exist may keep some from coming forward when it does occur.

Similarly, sexual harassment may occur between two women and it may not necessarily be one women hitting on another. It could easily be a woman who sends sexually based emails, circulates sexual jokes, or places sexually based posters or cartoons at her cube or in other public places.

Bosses and Employees

Sexual harassment between heterosexual co-workers is the most common form that people are aware of: The kind we saw in Mad Men, the kind that occurred at Miramax. If your boss is asking you out, beware. It’s not to say that bosses don’t ever date their former employees, but the operative word here is “former.” If there is a genuine desire to pursue a relationship, the boss must reassign himself or find some other way to extricate connection to the employee. That, or risk a lawsuit if the relationship goes south.

Strictly speaking, sexual harassment is defined by the Equal Opportunity Employment Commission (EEOC) as, “unwelcome sexual advances or conduct of a sexual nature which unreasonably interferes with the performance of a person's job or creates an intimidating, hostile, or offensive work environment.”

If this applies to you, document the behavior, involve HR and if all else fails, contact an employment attorney who can help you move forward with a case. No one deserves to be harassed. More importantly, however, these protections are the law.

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