Women and Workplace Discrimination: Overcoming Barriers to Gender Equality

By Raymond F. Gregory | Go to book overview

Fifteen
Employer Liability for Sexual
Harassment

Although acts of sexual harassment are committed by individual workers, most courts have ruled that under Title VII individuals are not liable for damages to their victims. Title VII makes it unlawful for an employer to discriminate against a woman because of her sex, thus limiting liability to employers. 1 A woman's lawsuit against an employee for sexual harassment will come to naught unless she works in a state where she may rely upon a local anti-discrimination law that provides for recovery against individual defendants.

An employer is liable to a victim of sexual harassment committed by a coworker or a nonemployee if the employer knew—or the circumstances demonstrate that it should have known—of the harassment. That leaves open a question of significant import for prospective complainants: Under what circumstances will an employer be held liable for the sexually harassing conduct of its supervisors?

Kimberly Ellerth worked in the Chicago office of Burlington Industries, first as a merchandising assistant and later as a sales representative. After about a year on the job, Ellerth claimed that she had been subjected throughout her employment to a series of sexually harassing actions by one of her supervisors. During her pre-employment interview, Theodore Slowik, who held a midlevel management position, asked her sexually suggestive questions and stared at her breasts and legs. After she was hired, Ellerth had intermittent contact with Slowik, and on nearly every occasion he told her offensive, off-color jokes and made other sexually inappropriate comments. While on a business trip, Slowik invited Ellerth to the hotel lounge, an invitation Ellerth felt compelled

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