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'50 Shades' of sexual harassment

It seems like everyone is talking about "50 Shades of Grey." The erotic romance, which started as an e-Book and gained a huge word-of-mouth following in California and across the nation, is now the best selling paperback of all time. There is even a movie in the works. With such a huge following, it was perhaps inevitable that the book would become a popular topic of discussion at the proverbial water cooler. However, is it appropriate to have workplace discussions about a book that some have dubbed "mommy porn"? Could such discussions lead to claims of sexual harassment? Many employers today are struggling with these questions.

Sexual harassment is a type of sex discrimination that is prohibited by both federal law and the laws of California. Unlawful sexual harassment includes conduct of a sexual nature that unreasonably interferes with an employee's ability to do his or her job or that creates an offensive or hostile working environment. The bottom line is that some people may be extremely uncomfortable to hear their co-workers talking about the sexually explicit content and themes of "50 Shades of Grey." If the discussions are unwelcome and pervasive, they may give rise to a claim of sexual harassment.

So, what should an employer do? Banning the book from the work place may be too extreme a measure. After all, the cover of the book itself is not offensive, and if an employee is reading it on a tablet or electronic reader, no one would even know. A spirited discussion of the book over lunch in the employee break room is another story, however. Those overhearing the discussion may find the sexual content unwelcome and offensive.

Employees who are subjected to workplace behavior that makes them feel uncomfortable should speak up. If the employer does not take adequate action to address the concern, an experienced sexual harassment attorney can help pursue a sexual harassment claim.

Source: Forbes, "'50 Shades of Grey' In The Workplace? Answer's Not So Black And White," Todd Wilms, Feb. 12, 2013

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