Sexual Harassment At Work: How To Recognize And Combat It

by Aug 17, 2022

Sexual harassment in the workplace is a serious problem that can have a negative impact on employees’ morale, productivity, and overall job satisfaction. If you believe that you are being harassed at work, it is vital to take action to protect your rights and stop the harassment.

It’s not just teenagers who face the challenges of navigating relationships in the workplace: adults can face just as much difficulty when balancing personal and professional obligations. 

After all, plenty of people out there don’t want to date someone from work because they feel it compromises their professionalism or could create a complex environment for them or their colleagues.    

But in many cases, individuals fail to recognize sexual harassment when it’s happening right in front of them. So in any office setting, whether you are an intern, secretary, janitor, CEO, or something in between, sexual harassment needs to be identified and addressed immediately. 

It doesn’t matter how “innocent” an advance might seem. If it makes you uncomfortable and goes beyond what is accepted professional conduct at your workplace, you need to take action before the situation worsens. 

Here are some ways you can recognize sexual harassment at work and how you can fight against it.


What Is Sexual Harassment In The Workplace?

Sexual harassment is any unwanted sexual advances or comments in the workplace that make you feel uncomfortable and affect your ability to do your job. It can include inappropriate touching, being forced to view sexual images or videos, being propositioned for sex, being told sexual stories, being given sexual gifts, etc.

Sexual harassment can come from your boss, co-workers, clients, or anyone who influences your employment status. It can be in person, over the phone, or even online.


Types Of Sexual Harassment At Work

There are two types of sexual harassment at work: quid pro quo sexual harassment and hostile work environment sexual harassment.

Quid Pro Quo Sexual Harassment

Quid pro quo sexual harassment occurs when an employer or supervisor offers employment benefits in exchange for sexual favors.

Hostile Work Environment Sexual Harassment

Hostile work environment sexual harassment occurs when an employee is subject to unwelcome sexual advances, comments, or conduct that creates a hostile or offensive work environment.

Actions That Are Sexual Harassment In The Workplace

There are many different types of sexual harassment. Some examples include:

Sexual Comments

Everyone has heard a “harmless” off-color joke or sexual comment at work, but when it’s directed towards you and happens constantly, it becomes a form of sexual harassment.

This could include jokes about your sexual orientation, speculation about your past sexual partners, comments about your body, asking you if you’re single, etc.

Unwanted Sexual Advances

This is any unwanted sexual contact, including touching, kissing, etc. The sexual nature of the advance doesn’t necessarily have to be overt for it to be considered sexual harassment.

If you’ve made it clear (through words or actions) that you don’t want the advances, but they continue nonetheless, then it can be classified as sexual harassment.

Sexual Humor Or Display Of Sexually Explicit Materials

This includes pin-ups, pictures of people having sex, pictures of genitalia, or any other images that are sexual.

Expecting Sexual Favors As A Condition Of Employment

This would include the expectation that you go out on a date or have sex with someone in exchange for a promotion, a raise, or continued employment.

Sexual Harassment By Bullying

This happens when someone creates a hostile environment for you by teasing, taunting, stalking, or threatening you because of your sexuality.


Know The Signs Of Sexual Harassment At Work

Some signs that sexual harassment may be happening to you or someone else at work include:

  • Feelings of being uncomfortable and anxious in the work environment.
  • Anxiety, fear, or depression caused by sexual comments or unwanted advances.
  • Feeling like you have to avoid other employees in the office which affects job performance and mental health.
  • Avoiding going to certain meetings because you know the person hosting will make sexual comments or jokes.
  • Being afraid to report misconduct because you feel like you have no support.
  • Feeling as though your career progress has been impeded or halted because of sexual advances.
  • Strange or threatening emails, texts, or voicemails from a co-worker or client.

How To Fight Sexual Harassment At Work

Sexual assault is something that shouldn’t be taken lightly. First and foremost, you need to recognize the signs of sexual harassment in the workplace. If you are being sexually harassed at work or see someone else being sexually harassed, speak up about it.

The civil rights act of 1964 made sexual harassment in the workplace illegal, and there are laws in place to protect you from retaliation.

Your company should have a sexual harassment policy, which should be included in the employee handbook. This policy will outline what sexual harassment is and what the consequences are for engaging in it.

Make sure you familiarize yourself with this policy to know your rights and what to do if you experience sexual harassment at work.

Speak Up About It

No matter how big or small the incident may seem, you should report it to your manager or human resources department as soon as possible.

Take advantage of your company’s anonymous reporting services if you are unsure how to report what happened to you or feel intimidated or fearful of retaliation. You can also get in touch with an employee advocacy group like End Sexual Harassment to talk to someone who can walk you through the process.

If you see someone else being sexually harassed in the workplace, report it. You don’t want to see another employee’s career affected by a sexual harasser.

You want to ensure the victim gets the help they need to get out of that situation. You may also want to file a sexual harassment complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).

Take Notes And Document Everything

As soon as you make a report, start taking notes on the events that are happening. Make sure you note the date and time of the event, then document what happened by writing out a detailed account of what occurred.

This can help when you’re meeting with your manager and HR to discuss what’s been happening. This also serves as a tool for seeking legal counsel and filing a sexual harassment lawsuit against your employer. Keep a log of communications you have with other employees, your manager, and human resources.

Take screenshots of any emails or texts that could be considered sexual harassment. You may need this as evidence if you decide to file a lawsuit.

Keep an eye on your health and well-being as you are dealing with the abuse. You may need to take some time off to take care of yourself.

Report What’s Happening To HR And Your Co-Workers

If someone is making sexually inappropriate comments or gestures toward you, you may think, “Well, I don’t want to make this situation worse by reporting it. I’ll ignore it and hope it goes away.”

But the reality is that sexual harassment is never a one-time thing. It tends to escalate if it’s not addressed.

It would be best to let your co-workers know this is happening to you.

If you see something happening to another employee, speak up about it. You may be the person who helps that person get the support they need to report the issue to HR.

You should report harassment in any form to HR, whether physical, verbal, or nonverbal. You may feel like you’re overreacting, but it’s important to remember that sexual harassment is a form of sex discrimination.

Seek Legal Counsel And Take A Break

The federal law that prohibits sexual harassment in the workplace is called Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. This law protects employees from discrimination based on sex, race, color, national origin, and religion.

There are some cases where sexual harassment is so severe that you may want to consider taking a break from your job. If you continue to be harassed and report it, but nothing is done, you may want to consider taking a break from your job.

Then, if you go back to work and the sexual harassment continues, you can go back to your lawyer and consider filing a lawsuit against the company.

Also, keep in mind that if the company you work for is found guilty of sexual harassment, you may be able to get financial compensation for your pain and suffering. A sexual harassment claim can be a long and challenging process, but if you have the evidence to back up your claim, you may be able to get the justice you deserve.

If you’re considering filing a sexual harassment lawsuit, consulting with an experienced sexual harassment lawyer who can help you through the process is essential.  


Bottom Line

Sexual harassment can happen in any workplace, and it can happen to anyone. It’s important to recognize and report sexual harassment when it happens so that it can be stopped.

Anyone who experiences sexual harassment in the workplace should know their rights and where they can get help.

Taking action to stop sexual harassment at work can be difficult, but it is essential to remember that you have rights, and some people can help you.

If you believe you are being sexually harassed at work, do not hesitate to take action to protect yourself and your rights.


Written by: Sarah Morris

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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