Sexual harassment on the job is obviously wrong, and it is illegal, but it does not necessarily rise to the level of being a serious crime until it crosses a certain line. And sometimes, behaviors do cross this line. It comes down to how sexual harassment at work is defined and applied. Most sexual harassment cases are civil cases that are handled in civil court, by government entities such as the Texas Workforce Commission's Civil Rights Division (TWC-CRD), or by administrative hearings within the place of employment. When sexual harassment involves sexual assault or rape, it goes beyond a civil case into a criminal charge.
What Constitutes Sexual Harassment
Under federal law, sexual harassment at work is classified as gender discrimination, which is prohibited. In the State of Texas, sexual harassment is under the purview of the Texas Workforce Commission (TWC), which defines it as unwelcome advances, requests for sexual favors, or physical touching of a sexual nature. Further, if such behaviors interfere unreasonably with a person’s work performance or create an offensive or hostile work environment or if an employee’s rejection of any such behaviors leaves him or her subject to employment repercussions, it may also be considered sexual harassment. The TWC offers further details, including:
- The harasser can be a female or a male.
- Sexual harassment need not involve a member of the opposite sex.
- A supervisor, a supervisor in another area, an agent of the employer, a coworker, or even a non-employee can all qualify as harassers.
- The harassment does not have to be directed at a specific person for that person to be affected by it.
- Illegal sexual harassment can occur even if the victim does not suffer economic damages or is not fired from the job in question.
When Is Sexual Harassment a Crime?
In specific situations, Texas laws can implement criminal charges for sexual harassment, including:
- Assault – Touching an employee or coworker inappropriately – such as patting someone’s rear or rubbing someone’s shoulder – with the intention of offending could be considered a Class C misdemeanor assault. When the touch causes pain, it may be considered a Class A misdemeanor assault.
- Sexual Assault – When sexual harassment is extreme and involves overtly sexual acts without the other person's consent, it is second-degree felony sexual assault.
- Criminal Harassment – The law also recognizes persistent sexual annoyance as a crime. For example, persistently texting, calling, or making explicit sexual advances with the intention of annoying, alarming, harassing, embarrassing, tormenting, or abusing can carry a charge of criminal harassment, which is a Class B misdemeanor.