A recent statistic discloses that the average North Shore employee spends 8.7 hours working every day. Many of us spend more time working than doing any other activity. For a number of reasons, including the long work day, our coworkers often become friends, crossing over from our work life to our social life. We spend time together at work and then get together outside of work – holiday parties, after work get-togethers and celebrations. This mix of work and socializing sometimes leads to unwelcome amorous or physical advances by co-workers or superiors. It is important that you know your rights as an employee and recognize when an unwelcome advance turns into something more. Massachusetts has specific laws designed to protect employees from sexual harassment.
Let’s look at a hypothetical. Jane starts as an entry level employee with a company located on Route 1 in Saugus. From her abilities and hard work, she is promoted. Around the same time, her high school classmate (Fred) was also hired. Jane and Fred knew each other enough to say hi but never traveled in the same circles. Fred also works hard and becomes a VP and then Jane’s boss. Long work days resulted in their occasionally having drinks or dinner with co-workers after the work day ends.
Fred decides to escalate the relationship. He starts sending sketchy e-mails to Jane that she views as sexually inappropriate – some are distasteful and others have provocative content, such as “I dream of you.” Jane asks him to stop and that she wants to keep the relationship professional. But Fred continues the behavior. Then Fred and Jane have a client meeting in Lynnfield. After the meeting, in the parking lot, Fred pins Jane against his car and tries to kiss her. Jane extricates herself with a push on his shoulder and the next day files a formal complaint with the Company.
Fred begins questioning Jane’s competency in front of coworkers, denying expense reimbursements, and giving Jane bad job performance reviews (although her peers disagree). Jane is fired.
In Dahms v. Cognex Corporation, 455 Mass. 190 (2009), a company that allowed a VP to engage in similar conduct was potentially liable for: 1) engaging in quid pro quo sexual harassment and 2) creating a hostile work environment.
Quid pro quo sexual harassment occurs when an employer bases employment decisions on either:
a) the acceptance or rejection of “sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature” or
b) “the submission to or rejection of such advances, requests or conduct” is a condition of employment. M.G.L. ch. 151B § 1.
In the hypothetical above, the Company is guilty of quid pro quo sexual harassment because Jane’s continued employment was conditioned upon receiving Fred’s unwelcomed advances. She told Fred that she wanted to keep the relationship professional, she filed a formal complaint, the unwelcome advances continued, her expense reimbursements were denied, she was given bad performance reviews and then she was fired.
A hostile work environment is created when “sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature . . .” unreasonably interfere “with an individual’s work performance by creating an intimidating, hostile, humiliating or sexually offensive work environment.” M.G.L. ch. 151B § 1.
Massachusetts laws protect employees from these types of sexual harassment in the workplace. In order to bring a claim against your employer, employees must follow specific procedural steps – including a requirement that a complaint must be filed with the Massachusetts Committee Against Discrimination within ten months of the discriminatory act. M.G.L. Ch. 151B § 5.
If you have been the victim of workplace harassment, speak with an experienced personal injury lawyer who is familiar with the current labor and employment laws. Don’t delay and miss the ten month window.
Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination