Area of Law:
Sexual harassment is the singling out of one person or a group of persons because of their sex (typically female), or situations in which the content of harassing comments or behavior is sexual in nature. The state of Wisconsin provides free legal assistance pertaining to harassment in the workplace in its publication ERD-7334-PWEB, which can be found at: http://www.dwd.state.wi.us/er/.
According to the pamphlet, in order for a behavior to be characterized as sexual harassment, more than a few casual comments or isolated incidents are required to have taken place, unless a single incident involves touching the victim’s “intimate body." Sexual harassment can take the form of verbal comments, epithets, sexually explicit or sexually derogatory language, the display of offensive pictures, mimicry, lewd gestures, offensive gestures, or offensive jokes. To make use of Wisconsin's legal services concerning the state's sexual harassment laws, complainants must demonstrate that they have been subjected to a pattern of sexually harassing behavior to a degree that either interferes with their work or creates a hostile and offensive work environment.
Sexual harassment can entail the following: unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors as a condition for employment, decisions being made about a person's employment based on their acceptance or rejection of sexual advances/requests, interference with a person's work performance, or the creation of a hostile, offensive, and/or intimidating work environment. Wisconsin defines “unwelcome” as not being solicited or invited by the victim or the act being generally regarded as offensive. Sexual harassment involving sexual advances or requests is known as “Quid Pro Quo," or “this for that” type of harassment.
According to Wisconsin’s “Harassment in the Workplace” brochure, there are several important facts to remember regarding sexual harassment. The pamphlet cautions that sexual harassment often occurs between people with varying power to make company or employment decisions (a person who consents to the behavior may also still be regarded as a victim of sexual harassment) and that sexual harassment can occur between two individuals of the same sex even if the conduct is not sexual. Offenders can be supervisors, coworkers, or people not employed by the company, including vendors, customers, or suppliers.
Employers are responsible for both their own and their agents' sexually harassing behavior, including company owners and managers. Employers can also be held responsible for coworker or non-employee sexual harassment if an employer knew about the harassment and failed to take appropriate action to correct the behavior. Damages may be awarded to complainant based on lost wages, attorneys’ fees, costs, as well as other damages for pain and suffering, or punishment if federal law is involved.
Wisconsin’s Equal Rights Division provides free legal help to individuals who believe they have been victims of sexual harassment by investigating complaints and issuing findings based on the investigations. The division’s website offers a great deal of information and tips for filing and participating in the investigation of sexual harassment claims. Though Wisconsin has no general prohibition against harassment in its state law, sexual harassment is not allowed as a discriminatory action based on a protected characteristic, which in this case is sex.
Once a complaint is filed, the Equal Rights Division investigates the claim and makes a finding. If a “probable cause” finding is made, the Division provides legal aid through a hearing that is decided by an administrative law judge who can award damages. Individuals who weren't directly involved with an incident of sexual harassment can still be victims and seek legal help through the Equal Right Division. Additionally, treating one sex rudely can also constitute sexual harassment.
The Wisconsin Equal Rights Division has a listing of attorneys who provide legal services in the civil rights area of practice, which can be found at: http://www.dwd.state.wi.us/dwd/pubications/erd/pdf/erd_8240_p.pdf. Wisconsin’s State Bar Referral (phone number: 1-800-362-9082) refers callers to lawyers who work with sexual harassment claims. If you tell the attorney that you were referred by the Illinois Lawyer Referral Service, the charge for your first half hour of consultation time will be less than or equal to $20. The hotline also answers basic legal questions and provides general legal information. Furthermore, it will refer callers to community resources if it is determined that you require services from someone other than an attorney.
In addition to the victim, workplace sexual harassment can be damaging to other people who are not directly involved. Sexual harassment can lead to lost work time, decreased employee morale, increased absenteeism, increased employee turnover, and damage to a company’s or a company owner’s reputation. Fortunately, Wisconsin has a governmental body as well as numerous attorneys who provide legal assistance to those affected by sexual harassment.