Inappropriate Touching in the Workplace

Have you ever had someone violate your personal space at work? Has anyone ever touched you without your consent? If so, you may have experienced inappropriate touching in the workplace.

One of the most pervasive and harmful forms of workplace harassment is inappropriate touching. According to an NPR poll, 35 percent of people reported witnessing inappropriate physical contact in the workplace. In another survey, 44 percent of respondents said they experienced workplace sexual harassment in the form of unwanted contact or advances.

Whether it’s an unwanted touch or outright assault, this experience can traumatize any employee. Even a seemingly harmless gesture from a coworker, boss, or employee can be inappropriate if it is unwelcome, especially if it makes you uncomfortable.

Even in workplaces with sexual harassment training, unwanted physical contact can happen to anyone. That’s why it’s important to be able to identify when it happens — and know what to do next. Contact a lawyer immediately if you think it’s happened to you.

 

When Physical Contact in the Workplace Turns Inappropriate 

man touching woman's shoulder

It isn’t always easy to determine when physical contact crosses a line. For example, bumping into your coworker may be a perfectly harmless mistake. In other instances, even seemingly innocent contact can turn inappropriate.

For the survivor, there can be an instinct to explain this behavior away: It’s not that big a deal. It’s just how they are. I don’t want to get them in trouble.

But this kind of physical contact — intentional or not — should be taken seriously. Any contact with a coworker that isn’t strictly professional or where they don’t have consent to touch you is harassment. That contact can come from someone in a position of power, but this isn’t always the case.

Examples of Inappropriate Touching at Work

All contact that happens without consent can be considered sexual harassment. However, each experience with inappropriate touching can look different.

Here are some examples of inappropriate touching in a professional work environment: 

  • Groping or grabbing
  • Brushing against your body
  • Putting a hand on your thigh
  • Massaging any part of your body
  • Kisses (lips, cheek, etc.)
  • Hugging without consent
  • Holding hands
  • Invading your personal space
  • Standing or sitting uncomfortably close 
  • Rubbing private parts against you
  • Touching private parts 
  • Any kind of sexual contact 
  • Physical or sexual assault 

For some perpetrators, inappropriate touching may be unintentional. For others, however, the harassment is deliberate. The perpetrator aims to control the victim, making them feel uncomfortable and intimidated.

Some perpetrators are more discreet with their unwanted touching, making it appear harmless to outside observers. For example, they may repeatedly brush up against someone or stand uncomfortably close to them at their desk. They may take the opportunity to turn routine physical contact into something uncomfortable, like getting someone’s attention by touching their waist or lower back instead of tapping them on the shoulder.

Even if it’s disguised as friendly or paternal behavior, this unwanted touching is sexual harassment. Nobody has the right to touch you — whether it’s a handshake, a hug, or an overtly sexual touch — without your consent.

Is Inappropriate Touching at Work Harassment or Assault? 

Any physical contact can be sexual harassment if it makes the person uncomfortable. In a professional setting, there’s very little reason for touching to take place — beyond a handshake. 

The law doesn’t necessarily prohibit isolated incidents that aren’t particularly serious, but it does consider a repeated pattern of behavior to be sexual harassment. If it creates a hostile or offensive work environment, it’s considered sexual harassment. 

Beyond harassment, inappropriate touching can also be considered sexual assault. Any unwanted touching that involves the genitalia or buttocks is regarded as sexual assault, along with other forms of touching that are sexual in nature or are done for sexual gratification. 

Not all inappropriate touching may qualify as assault under the law, but it may still qualify as sexual harassment. 

man touching woman on the leg

How Does Unwanted Touching in the Workplace Impact Survivors?

Unwanted touching at work can leave lasting physical and mental damage. Whether it’s an isolated incident or something that keeps happening, this behavior can make people feel distressed, uncomfortable, and unsafe at their place of employment.

This kind of sexual harassment can affect people in different ways, from their mental health to career opportunities. While not specific to inappropriate touching, studies found that workplace sexual harassment can: 

  • Lead to depression and PTSD
  • Negatively affect psychological well-being
  • Create long-term physical health problems 
  • Increase the risk of workplace accidents

Inappropriate touching can also limit opportunities for career advancement. Employees may give up job prospects, drop out of leadership roles, or turn down projects to avoid the perpetrator. In some cases, they may feel they need to quit their job, experiencing financial stress and instability to escape their situation. 

Survivors may feel too intimidated to tell the harasser to stop or even fear retaliation for reporting their experiences. That’s why it’s so important to speak up and seek help. The law is on the victim’s side — even if they didn’t explicitly say “no.” 

Handling Inappropriate Touching in the Workplace 

No one should have to endure unwanted touching at work. Everyone deserves the right to feel safe and comfortable at their place of employment. If you’ve experienced any unwanted touching at work, there are some steps you can take to protect yourself and assert your legal rights. 

The first step is to immediately tell the person who touched you that their behavior is unwanted. It’s your right to protect your personal space, even if you just want them to stop hovering over you or shaking your hand. If you feel unsafe speaking to your perpetrator or think it would cause further distress, you can always ask a direct supervisor or the HR department to handle the communication on your behalf. 

This conversation is also a way to legally distinguish accidental and intentional contact. For example, if someone brushes up against you once, it could be considered an accident. If they keep doing it — even after you’ve asked them to stop — it becomes harassment. 

Any time you experience unwanted touching, document all relevant information. This can include the date and time, who made contact, and the names of anyone who witnessed the incident. You can even ask witnesses to write their own statements about what they saw.

Report the behavior to your higher-ups, supervisor, or the HR department. The company should take immediate action to stop the behavior and protect you from future incidents, including penalizing the perpetrator. If they don’t take appropriate action, you can file a claim with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission

If you’ve experienced inappropriate touching in the workplace, you may have a case for sexual harassment. A lawyer can help you take appropriate action to stop the behavior and hold the perpetrator accountable. This can include investigating the facts of the case, collecting evidence, and speaking to eyewitnesses. They can file paperwork on your behalf for a sexual harassment claim.

An attorney can also be a helpful resource for survivors. A legal professional can answer questions, explain your rights, and act as your guide throughout the legal process.