Sexual Harassment in the Workplace

Sexual harassment in the workplace is any unwanted sexual contact or comments from someone you work with. The harasser may be a supervisor, coworker, or even a customer. People of any gender or sexual orientation can be victims or perpetrators, and sexual harassment in the workplace can be detrimental to all employees.

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You expect your workplace to be a place where you feel safe and can perform your job without distractions or fear. You make friends with your coworkers and learn to trust them professionally.

However, the workplace can sometimes become a hostile environment. You may find a colleague or two who make you uncomfortable. It might not happen for years, or you may notice it on your first day.

They begin to single you out. Talk inappropriately in a sexual manner. They may make crude gestures, invade your personal space, or offer promotions and other benefits in exchange for sexual favors. This is workplace sexual harassment, and it can make your life extremely difficult.

What is considered sexual harassment in the workplace?

Sexual harassment in the workplace is unwelcome, unwanted, and nonconsensual behavior of a sexual nature that takes place in a work environment. It can also involve singling someone or a group of people out due to their gender or sexual orientation and teasing, bullying, or making offensive comments about them.

When it comes to sexual harassment, many people envision a male coworker “sexually harassing” a female coworker. However, this is just one possibility of sexual harassment in the workplace. The victim and harasser can be of any gender. They can be the opposite sex (man and woman) or the same (two women or two men). It does not matter. 

Sexual harassment in the workplace can manifest in many different ways. It can include offensive comments or gestures, intimidation, or bullying. The behavior creates a hostile and uncomfortable environment for the victims.

The following are examples of actions in the workplace that can be considered sexual harassment:

  • Curse words or crude language in the context of gender or sexual orientation
  • Sending messages (email or text) that have a sexual connotation or include photos or videos of a sexual nature
  • Unwanted inquiries into one’s personal or sexual life
  • Uninvited physical contact (it does not have to be in a sexual manner)
  • Offensive jokes about sex 
  • Asking for sexual favors (sometimes in return for a promotion or work benefit)
  • Sending or showing photos of a sexual nature or pornography
  • Unwanted offers to go on dates
  • Being whistled at or subjected to other sexual-related noises or phrases (catcalling)

Note that this list is not exhaustive, and there can be other behaviors that you may have experienced that are considered sexual harassment.

Also, it does not matter if the person doing the harassment thinks their behavior is acceptable. It matters if the person being harassed thinks the behavior is inappropriate. So if you were uncomfortable with the behavior of someone at work, you might have been sexually harassed.

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Who can be a victim of sexual harassment?

The victim of sexual harassment is anyone offended by the words, gestures, or conduct of the harasser. The victim does not have to be the target of those words, gestures, or conduct as long as they experienced the behavior (i.e., heard or saw the harassment occur).

Who can be the perpetrator of sexual
harassment?

In the workplace, the harasser can be the following persons:

  • Victim’s supervisor
  • Another supervisor, though not the victim’s supervisor
  • Coworker
  • An employee in another department

The harasser might be a client or customer of the victim as well.

Statistics on Workplace Sexual Harassment

You are not alone when it comes to workplace sexual harassment.

What is the difference between sexual harassment and sexual assault?

Sexual harassment and sexual assault are not the same act, though there are similarities. Sexual harassment usually involves verbal or gestural conduct of a sexual nature.

In contrast to sexual harassment, there is nonconsensual and unwanted sexual contact in sexual assault. It involves physical force or the threat of force.

Sexual assault is included in state and federal criminal codes, and the offender can be prosecuted for such actions. Sexual harassment at work, on the other hand, is dealt with under civil law or internally in a company.

But sexual harassment can escalate to sexual assault when words and gestures turn to physical force or threat of force.

Laws Governing Sexual Harassment in the Workplace

Both federal and state laws prohibit sexual harassment at work.

Federal Law

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits discrimination based on sex. Sexual harassment in the workplace is considered a form of sex discrimination and is covered by Title VII. Under that law, employers with 15 or more employees must not discriminate on the basis of sex or tolerate sexual harassment in the workplace.

The law’s purpose is to provide a safe and productive work environment and a legal mechanism to hold employers responsible for a hostile work environment. 

Here are two main points:

  1. An employer cannot retaliate against you for filing a complaint or speaking out against sexual harassment. Retaliation can include termination of employment, reassignment to a different department or location, or a lower salary. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission reported that 40.8 percent of sexual harassment charges in 2021 were filed along with retaliation charges. 
  2. An employer cannot ignore your complaint about sexual harassment in the workplace. Once learning about the complaint, they must investigate and take proper measures to stop the harassment. 

If you experience retaliation for your complaint or lack of investigation, you can file a charge with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

State Law

States have also implemented their own fair employment practice laws prohibiting sexual harassment. For example, California’s fair employment law, the Fair Employment and Housing Act, prohibits sexual harassment for all employers, not just those with 15 employees or more. It also mandates that employers with more than five employees undergo sexual harassment training.

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Impact of Being a Victim/Survivor of Harassment

Being the victim of sexual harassment can be traumatizing. The impact does not only have a physical effect on you. It can leave you with emotional and psychological anguish and an intense feeling of uneasiness whenever you go to work.

Consequences of sexual harassment can include:

  • Alcohol abuse
  • Anger
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Disturbances in your sleep/wake cycle
  • Drug use
  • Fear 
  • Feeling abused and violated
  • Financial losses due to lost days of work
  • Headaches
  • Heart palpitations
  • Helplessness
  • High blood pressure
  • High levels of stress
  • Humiliation
  • Low self-esteem
  • Panic attacks
  • Nervousness
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder
  • Sense of dread when going to work
  • Suicidal thoughts
  • Weight loss or gain

You may feel responsible for the harassment, but only the harasser is accountable for their actions.

What should I do when I see sexual harassment at work?

If you see someone else is the victim of sexual harassment at work, if you feel safe to do so, you can try to break it up and tell the harasser to stop. Maybe you are protecting the victim from what might become unwanted touching or contact. Perhaps the harasser will stop after you step in.

You can be the support the victim needs. Try to understand the situation and encourage the victim to report the harasser to the competent authorities if the harasser continues their inappropriate behavior.

What should I do if I experience workplace sexual harassment?

There are several paths you can take if you have experienced sexual harassment at your job. 

One option is to tell the harasser to stop their behavior because it makes you uncomfortable. Only do this if you feel safe. It may help to bring a coworker you trust with you. If the harasser continues their inappropriate behavior, keep track of the harasser’s behavior and the times you asked them to stop.

The next person to contact is your supervisor or someone in a position of authority. If the harasser is your direct supervisor, go to human resources or someone higher. If your company has an anonymous system for reporting employee complaints, you can take advantage of this as well. Remember that employers are required by federal law to investigate and act on any allegations of sexual harassment.

Helping Survivors of Sexual Abuse and Assault has many resources to guide you through reporting sexual harassment. If you receive no support from your company or are subjected to retaliation, contact a lawyer immediately.