5 Subtle Behaviors that are Considered Sexual Harassment

by Mar 5, 2022

Written by: Sabrina Singh


98% of people have experienced sexual harassment at work.


And 82% of statistics are made up.


…including the two you just read…but now that I have your attention…

While it may not be 98%, the amount of people affected by sexual harassment in the workplace is likely much higher than we realize. This is because the signs of harassment are not always blatant…in fact, they are often subtle enough to be dismissed as harmless or acceptable. The individual may not even know that their behavior is inappropriate.

But the truth of the matter is that sexual harassment of any form has negative consequences such as discomfort, lack of psychological safety and depression.

And while the law requires behaviors be severe and pervasive to “count” as harassment, that doesn’t mean the subtle or one-time behaviors should be ignored. Especially because those subtle behaviors escalate over time. 

Here are 5 subtle behaviors that should be avoided, in the interest of creating a harassment-free and respectful workplace culture:

1) Inquiring about someone’s personal life.

  • While a well-intentioned compliment and ask like, “You look great in that shirt… got a hot date?” seems harmless, this could be inappropriate if your relationship with the colleague hasn’t opened the door for this question. Also, give compliments and build people up… just be cautious with ones of a physical nature.

2) Continuous, unwelcome flirting.

  • About 1/3 of relationships start at work *this statistic is actually true*. If you’re interested in a coworker, there is nothing wrong with respectfully asking them out…in fact, it would be unreasonable to expect otherwise. However, if the invite is declined or ill-received, any further flirtatious advances are considered sexual harassment. A no may be disappointing, but it’s a no nonetheless.

3) Staring.

  • I can personally attest to the discomfort a single look can cause. Whether it’s being watched for an extended period of time, or being looked up and down, what may seem like an innocent “look” can make someone feel uncomfortable, objectified, and sometimes even in danger. So don’t stare. It’s not a compliment.

4) Contacting someone personally outside of work, without their consent.

  • Social media makes it especially easy to reach people through personal means. Connecting with someone via social media, messaging, or even a phone call is not in itself considered harassment. But if these actions include sexual content of any kind, then it is considered harassment. And if the individual isn’t responding to your messages, it’s time to leave them alone. 

5) Excessive touching without consent…even in an innocent nature.

  • Something as simple as a hug or an arm touch can be considered sexual harassment. During our harassment prevention training, we talk about the rule of thumb: Hug responsibly. The key is to ensure the “touching” is with innocent intent, welcomed by the recipient, and inexcessive. All three components must be present, in order for the contact to be appropriate in the workplace.

These are just 5 examples, but there are MANY subtle behaviors that are inappropriate and could lead to sexual harassment claims. Unless you’re given explicit consent, it’s important to always operate with caution. Be aware of the responses your actions are receiving – if the response is discomfort in even the slightest regard, it’s likely considered harassment and should not continue.

If you are interested in further sexual harassment awareness, we’re offering a no cost, super interactive Harassment Prevention Training Webinar on April 25th at 9AM PST. Be sure to save the date in your calendar, and register in advance here!

At the end of the day, we all want to feel comfortable at work. So let’s take our awareness to a new level and ensure we aren’t contributing to the 98%…or whatever the true number may be…

About Catherine Mattice

Catherine Mattice, MA, SPHR, SHRM-SCP is President of consulting and training firm, Civility Partners, and has been successfully providing programs in workplace bullying and building positive workplaces since 2007. Her clients include Fortune 500’s, the military, several universities and hospitals, government agencies, small businesses and nonprofits. She has published in a variety of trade magazines and has appeared several times on NPR, FOX, NBC, and ABC as an expert, as well as in USA Today, Inc Magazine, Huffington Post, Entrepreneur Magazine, and more. Catherine is Past-President of the Association for Talent Development (ATD), San Diego Chapter and teaches at National University. In his book foreword, Ken Blanchard called her book, BACK OFF! Your Kick-Ass Guide to Ending Bullying at Work, “the most comprehensive and valuable handbook on the topic.” She recently released a second book entitled, SEEKING CIVILITY: How Leaders, Managers and HR Can Create a Workplace Free of Bullying.

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