Workplace sexual harassment is evaluated on a sliding scale. One very serious incident such as a workplace groping or sexual assault on its own can serve as the basis for a sexual harassment lawsuit. On the other hand, the common and continuous occurrence of a number of small incidents (jokes, light touching, and lewd glances) can also serve as the basis for a sexual harassment lawsuit. A good way to conceptualize the sliding scale is this: the fewer the number of instances of harassment is, the more severe each of those instances must be to state a legal claim.
An inappropriate action crosses the line into a case of harassment when it is either accompanied by many other similar actions, or the action itself is very severe. Take workplace jokes for example: a series of joking emails that have implied sexual undertones can result in a harassment claim if there are a lot of them, but similarly, one or two joking emails that have links to pornography or lewd gifs may on their own constitute a harassment claim. It’s simply a matter of degree (how bad was the incident) and regularity (how often do similar incidents occur).
What to do
If you have been harassed in the workplace, your first step should be to attempt an internal resolution. If you work for a large company, you should report any harassment to your company’s human resources department. Often, human resources personnel have specific procedures in place to investigate and resolve incidents of sexual harassment at work. If you work for a smaller business (employing between 15 and 25 people) that does not have a dedicated HR department, discuss the matter with your immediate supervisor or someone with authority within the organization.
In either case, if your supervisor is the one harassing you, always report the incident to a higher authority, if possible. If you are concerned that reporting sexual harassment in the workplace may negatively affect your employment or result in your termination, you should know that such adverse actions can serve as the basis for a legal retaliation claim. If after working through your company’s internal harassment resolution process to no avail, you should contact an experienced employment law attorney.