Know Your Rights
Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Sexual Harassment and the Workplace

Can you joke around with coworkers in the control room or the break room? Do you have a right to complain if your coworkers are joking in a sexual manner and you are offended? What can go wrong if my idea of a joke is taken the wrong way by another colleague in the workplace?

These are questions that need to be addressed to avoid miscommunication in the workplace, which can lead to possible disciplinary action for inappropriate conduct involving sexual harassment. In general, FAA policy provides that employees, both men and women, have the right to a workplace that is free from offensive verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature. The legal definition of sexual harassment requires that the offensive comments must be severe and pervasive and interfere with the working conditions to violate the law. However, FAA employees can quickly find themselves subject to an Accountability Board investigation for offensive comments or conduct that is much less serious than the legal test for sexual harassment. 

What is considered offensive joking or touching by some controllers, such as a touch on the shoulder, may be considered perfectly acceptable by others. The key is to know your coworkers’ limits and know whether joking or bantering of a sexual nature is likely to offend them. Both men and women can take offense at comments or conduct of a sexual nature that is intended to be funny. If another employee is easily offended, it is best to avoid jokes of a sexual nature when that person is present. In addition, in order to avoid possible disciplinary action, if you are asked to stop joking around because someone is uncomfortable, it is critical that the behavior does not continue and is stopped immediately. While joking around to relieve stress or boredom can be appropriate, it is never acceptable to continue making comments of a sexual  nature once someone has complained or indicated that they find the comments offensive. NATCA recently won an arbitration for a 25-day suspension for inappropriate conduct of a sexual nature because several witnesses testified that when the grievant was asked to stop the joking around because someone was offended, he stopped. Remember, it is important to stop the offensive comments or conduct when you are notified that another employee is not comfortable and to respect the rights of coworkers who may not share your sense of humor.