Unwanted Physical Contact
A gentle pat on the back may appear to be a harmless gesture, however, it can lead to awkward and uneasy feelings for the person on the receiving end. While this contact may initially appear innocent, if it is not discouraged right away, it can lead to more aggressive actions. There are also potential long-term ramifications for the person who had to endure the unwanted experience. It can make them feel uncomfortable or distracted, leading to a less productive employee.
Unwanted physical contact is a form of sexual harassment in the workplace and should not be tolerated. Co-workers and employers have an obligation to their colleagues to keep their hands to themselves. When a person crosses that line, the recipient has the right to fight back. A sexual harassment lawyer can provide advice on how best to confront the situation.
What Constitutes Unwanted Physical Contact?
In general, people should keep their hands to themselves at work, however, not all touching is considered unwanted. It is considered unwanted only if the recipient of the touching did not do anything to invite the gesture or prompt it to begin. A person cannot ask a co-worker for a backrub, for instance, then claim the person made an unwanted gesture.
In addition, if any type of contact makes a person uncomfortable, they should immediately inform the person. This will also establish that the action is unwelcome. Once the person who initiated the touching knows how their actions made the other person feel, the onus is on them not to do it again. If they do, they can be held liable since they should know better. They cannot claim ignorance about the situation, especially if the request is made in front of others or has been documented.
It is important to point out that most courts will not consider an isolated minor incident to be illegal. If there is persistent touching or a major incident, such as assault, then the courts will take it more seriously.
What are Some Examples of Inappropriate Touching at Work?
There are examples of unwanted physical contact that may seem minor, but they can still make someone feel violated. Some touching can go beyond sexual harassment and constitute as a crime. In those instances, the incident should be reported as soon as possible. Examples of inappropriate touching include:
- Patting or petting
- Blocking a person’s movements
- Physical assault
- Coerced sexual activity
- Attempted rape or rape
Is There a Difference Between Unwelcome Sexual Conduct and Inappropriate Touching?
Unwelcome sexual conduct can contribute to a hostile work environment. This type of contact can be so pervasive and ongoing that it could upset the work environment for one or more employees. These gestures can be so distracting to the impacted employees that they may not be able to properly function at work. They could get so upset that they are forced to quit or take extra time off.
Inappropriate touching may not be as aggressive, nor does it have to involve touching of a sexual nature. However, inappropriate touching can still make co-workers feel uneasy, and it is still unacceptable workplace conduct. Examples of this include a hug or similar gestures.
There are instances where the physical touching cannot be construed as innocent and is aggressive, such as:
- Grabbing a person’s buttocks or breasts
- Purposefully rubbing up against a person
- Trying to kiss a co-worker without permission
- Rubbing their genitals on a person
- Hugging without asking
- Caressing any part of another person’s body in a sexual way
The best way to stop a situation from escalating beyond a one-time incident is to tell the person immediately that they do not like being touched, how it makes them feel, and to stop. If the situation does not end right then and there, the recipient might have to take the matter to a supervisor.
While there are instances when a certain level of touching is permissible, co-workers should refrain from making any type of physical contact with each other, especially if they are a manager. A handshake, high-five, and even a fist bump are probably the highest levels of contact two co-workers should make in the office.
What Should I Do When Facing Unwanted Physical Contact?
Several studies estimate that many women have suffered sexual harassment at work throughout their career. However, the number of people who reported sexual harassment at work pales in comparison. The speculation for these disproportionate numbers is the fact that many who face problems at work are afraid to report any incidents, especially if it feels minor to them. They fear for their jobs, or they are afraid of suffering retaliation for reporting the incident.
Those who do encounter such behavior should not let fear dictate their next move. The law is on their side, and even if a company or supervisor does decide to retaliate, it will be something that can be addressed in a future complaint or lawsuit. There are a few steps a person should take that will strengthen their case when the situation occurs, such as:
- Taking notes. Keep a record of each incident as it occurs, including the date and time. Include details of what was done and any reactions that occurred. If there were any witnesses to the incident, their names should be included. Establishing a timeline will make it easier when filing a complaint later.
- Speaking to the harasser. When an incident occurs, the first step to take is to speak with the harasser. Ask them to stop what they did and explain why it makes them feel uncomfortable. This should be a private, cordial conversation. Afterward, a person should be sure to detail the conversation in their notes.
- Seeking legal help. The process of dealing with any form of sexual harassment at work can be complicated and long. Bringing a sexual harassment lawyer on board is a good idea because they can help throughout the entire process.
After taking those initial steps, if the situation has not improved or has escalated, it is time to lodge a complaint. There is a gradual progress of where to file a complaint, and a lawyer will be able to provide the correct procedure. However, the best road to finding a resolution to the situation is to follow these stages:
- Speak with an employer. If the person who has initiated the unwanted physical contact is a co-worker, the next step should be to speak with that person’s supervisor to report the incident.
- File a complaint. The person who initiated the contact could be a supervisor. If that is the case, the person might feel that they cannot go to them to file a complaint. An employee can speak with someone in the Human Resources (HR) department, however. These are people who should have training and experience to handle these situations. A person should explain the incident and lay out the potential resolutions that they are interested in achieving.
- File a grievance with the government. If the HR department fails to act appropriately or if management has retaliated for filing a complaint, an employee’s next step will be to take their grievance to an outside government agency. There are a few federal and state agencies that will investigate and fight sexual harassment in the workplace. An employee can file a complaint with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission (PHRC).
- File a lawsuit. After a formal complaint has been filed with a federal or state agency, a person should receive the go-ahead to sue the company over the incident. By this stage, it will have escalated beyond a simple matter of unwanted physical contact since the recipient would have already complained to management.
Employees should understand that there is a time limit to file a complaint. For instance, the statute of limitations for filing a complaint with the EEOC is 180 days and 300 days for the PHRC. Since there is a time constraint to file a complaint, it is important to speak to a lawyer right away.
Philadelphia Sexual Harassment Lawyers at Sidney L. Gold & Associates, P.C. Stand Up for Workers Dealing with Unwanted Physical Contact
When a fellow co-worker touches you inappropriately at work, it can make you feel uncomfortable and violated. The Philadelphia sexual harassment lawyers at Sidney L. Gold & Associates, P.C. know the law and can help. Call us at 215-569-1999 or contact us online today to schedule a free consultation. Located in Philadelphia and Pennsauken, New Jersey, we serve clients throughout South Jersey and southeastern Pennsylvania, including Wilkes-Barre, Scranton, Northeast Philadelphia, Bucks County, Chester County, Delaware County, and Montgomery County, as well as New York.