Michigan and federal employment law: the basics of sexual harassment

Both federal and state civil rights laws define and prohibit sexual harassment in the workplace

The only female employee at a manufacturing plant is subjected to daily crude jokes and sexually explicit posters in the break room. A male office worker receives repeated invitations for dates and unwanted personal attention from a female supervisor.

What do these situations have in common? They both describe circumstances that probably state claims for illegal workplace sexual harassment under both Michigan and federal anti-discrimination laws.

Under Title VII of the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964 and under the Michigan Civil Rights Act, sexual harassment falls under the umbrella of illegal sex discrimination. According to the Michigan statute, sexual harassment of a job applicant or employee happens with "unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct or communication of a sexual nature."

Specifically, sexual harassment can be of two types. The first, quid pro quo (meaning this for that), occurs when the victim is requested to perform a sexual favor or similar action in exchange for getting or keeping a job, or as a condition for an employee to get an employment perk or prevent another type of negative employment action.

The second kind of sexual harassment is through the creation of a so-called hostile work environment through "conduct or communication" of a sexual nature that "has the purpose or effect of substantially interfering with an individual's employment ... or creating an intimidating, hostile, or offensive employment ... environment," according to the Michigan statute.

The Michigan Supreme Court has elaborated on what constitutes a hostile work environment. Whether it meets the standard in the law depends on how a reasonable person in the victim's position would perceive the offensive conduct, considering the totality of the circumstances.

For a single incident to create a hostile environment, the nature of the incident would have to be very serious in nature. For example, a one-time sexually offensive joke would probably not be enough to create a hostile work environment, but if sexually crude humor and comments were part of the everyday work environment, that would probably state a claim.

In essence, the harassing behavior must either be extreme or pervasive over time in order to be sexual harassment as defined by the law. And it must also be sexual in nature.

Notably, people of either gender can be victims of sexual harassment and both same- and opposite-sex harassment is illegal.

Anyone in Michigan who feels that he or she may be the victim of sexual harassment at work should speak with an employment law attorney who can answer questions and evaluate what potential legal remedies may be available under state and federal law.

On the other side, any Michigan employer seeking to implement a sexual harassment policy or needing guidance about how to respond to a sexual harassment complaint should seek knowledgeable legal counsel who can educate them about the requirements of the law.

The employment lawyers of Sterling Attorneys at Law, P.C., in suburban Detroit, represent employees in claims of sexual harassment as well as employers seeking to abide by federal and state anti-discrimination laws.