You may be wondering how to handle sexual harassment at work. It’s a challenge many employees, particularly women, face in the workplace.
Understanding what constitutes sexual harassment, how to address it if it happens to you, and what laws protect you, are important steps to protect yourself in the workplace.
What Is Workplace Sexual Harassment?
Workplace sexual harassment includes unwanted sexual actions or comments that make you feel uneasy, offended, scared, or disrupt your work.
It may be a one-time occurrence or a pattern of behavior. The harasser could be a boss, a colleague, or even a client. It can happen to anyone, regardless of their sex, gender identity, or orientation.
Sexual harassment takes various forms, including physical touching, suggestive comments, jokes, or gestures, displaying sexually explicit materials, or offering job benefits in exchange for sexual favors. It’s important to remember that this behavior is not only inappropriate but also an abuse of power and illegal.
Here are some examples:
Unwelcome Physical Contact
This could range from seemingly benign actions like a persistent hand on your shoulder to more aggressive forms like pinching, patting, or intentional brushing up against your body.
Inappropriate Comments or Jokes
Comments about your appearance, body, or sex life that make you feel uncomfortable are forms of verbal harassment. This also includes unwelcome sexual innuendos or humor that offends or humiliates you.
Even without touch or words, actions can constitute harassment. A suggestive look, leering, or making sexual gestures fall under this.
Displaying Sexual Materials
Having to view sexual posters, screensavers, or other materials in a shared office space can be a form of harassment.
Offering Benefits or Threats
Any suggestion that your job status or promotion opportunities are reliant on accepting sexual advances is harassment, as is threatening you with demotion or dismissal for rejecting such advances.
Spreading sexual rumors about you or sending emails of a sexual nature about you to others.
Sending unwelcome sexually explicit messages, images, or videos electronically, perhaps over company email or through social media platforms.
If your work environment becomes hostile or offensive due to these actions, it’s essential to recognize it as sexual harassment.
What Would Not Be Considered Sexual Harassment?
You might feel uncertain about distinguishing between social interaction and harassment at work. So you need to know when the line has been crossed so that you can take the necessary actions to protect yourself.
Consider the following examples:
A pat on the back from a colleague congratulating you on a job well done might not be harassment, especially if it is not sexually motivated and is considered acceptable by social standards within the workplace.
A general compliment on your new haircut or outfit that is not laced with sexual undertones or repeated after you’ve indicated it’s unwelcome usually isn’t harassment.
If you engage in mutually acceptable, light-hearted banter that both parties are comfortable with, this is not harassment. It’s when the interaction is not wanted by one party, or if it takes on a sexual tone that’s unwelcome, that it becomes problematic.
Casual Social Interaction
Asking a coworker to lunch or for coffee without any sexual intent or pressure, even if declined, is typically part of normal interactions. It’s only when these invitations are persistent and unwelcome, especially after you’ve said no, that they might cross the line into harassment.
If two colleagues engage in a consensual romantic relationship, it is not classified as sexual harassment. However, problems may arise if the relationship ends, and one party continues to pursue the other against their wishes.
Professional Physical Contact
Certain jobs may require touching, such as a physical therapist demonstrating a technique on a colleague. If this contact is professional in nature and necessary for the work, it’s not harassment.
The situation and how you feel about it really matter when deciding if something is workplace sexual harassment. If an interaction makes you feel uncomfortable, trust your instincts, and consider the intent and frequency of the behavior.
The examples given don’t cover everything. Sometimes, it’s not so clear if it’s harassment or not, and you might need to talk to an expert to figure it out.
How to Address Sexual Harassment in the Workplace
Addressing sexual harassment is not easy, but taking action is important not only for your well-being but also for the safety and integrity of the workplace. Below are steps you can take if you find yourself in such a situation.
1. Tell Your Harasser to Stop Immediately
Confrontation can be difficult, but if you feel safe and comfortable doing so, directly telling the offender to stop can be an effective first step. For example, if a colleague makes a sexually inappropriate joke, you could say:
“What you are doing is making me uncomfortable. Please stop right now.”
Being clear and concise is key. You do not need to engage in a lengthy discussion or feel the need to justify your request. If they do not stop, or if the behavior persists, you can follow up with:
“Stop harassing me. I am going to get help right now.”
Speaking up can be empowering, and it sets a clear boundary with the harasser. It also serves as a verbal record that you have not condoned the behavior and have actively sought to end it.
This step can deter future harassment and serves as a foundation should you need to escalate the issue. When addressing the harasser, it’s best to do so in a place where you feel safe, and if possible, have a witness present for accountability.
2. Report to Management
If the harassment continues, report the incident as soon as possible to management, human resources, or another designated authority within your company.
Begin by checking your employer’s policy on harassment, which should outline the specific steps on how to report an incident. Document each instance of harassment, including dates, times, locations, what was said or done, and any witnesses.
This documentation will support your case and provide a detailed account for your employer or any investigating bodies.
When reporting, stay factual and convey the emotional and professional impact of the harassment on your work life. If the first person you report to does not take appropriate action, do not hesitate to report to someone else until your complaint is addressed adequately.
It is vital that you understand who to turn to if the harasser is your immediate supervisor or someone within your direct reporting line. Most companies have alternative reporting mechanisms for such cases, often through human resources or a designated ombudsperson.
Do not be deterred if the first person you approach doesn’t take the appropriate action; it is your right to seek a workplace free of harassment.
3. File a Claim
If your company does not adequately address your complaint, or if the harassment continues, you can consider taking legal action. Begin by filing a claim with the relevant state or federal agency.
In the United States, this is typically the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). You may be required to file your claim within a certain timeframe—usually within 180 to 300 days from the date of the last incident.
The EEOC will review your claim and may investigate the allegations. They can also mediate a resolution between you and your employer.
If the agency finds that harassment occurred and you are not satisfied with the suggested remedy, or if the agency does not resolve your claim, you may have the option to file a lawsuit.
You have the right to work in an environment that is safe and free from harassment. Following the proper legal channels ensures that your case is heard and increases the likelihood that you will receive the justice you seek.
It’s prudent to consult with an attorney who specializes in employment or labor law to support you through this process and to ensure your rights are protected.
4. Supporting Actions to Take
When addressing sexual harassment in the workplace, there are additional measures you can take to support your actions and ensure your well-being.
Keep a Detailed Record
Document every instance of harassment meticulously. Write down the date, time, place, and exactly what happened or was said, along with the names of any witnesses. This paperwork can prove invaluable if you need to escalate the matter to your employer, a legal entity, or the EEOC.
Keeping communication related to the harassment, like emails or texts, is also crucial, as these can be used as evidence.
Seek Support from Co-Workers
If your co-workers have observed harassment or have experienced similar behavior from the same individual, encourage them to document their experiences and to come forward. There’s strength in numbers, and corroborating testimonies can substantiate your claim.
Care for Your Well-being
Experiencing workplace sexual harassment can be deeply upsetting and stressful. Take care of your mental health by seeking support from friends, family, or a professional therapist. Many organizations offer employee assistance programs that provide counseling services.
Educate Yourself on Company Policy
Review your employer’s policy regarding sexual harassment thoroughly so that you understand your rights and the procedures the company must follow when you file a complaint.
This knowledge will empower you to ensure that the company adheres to its own rules and provides the necessary support during the process.
Consider a Support Group or Advocate
Joining a support group or finding an advocate who understands the intricacies of dealing with workplace sexual harassment can provide emotional backing and practical advice.
They can offer guidance on how to navigate the reporting process, who to speak to, and what to expect after you’ve reported the harassment.
Know When to Seek Legal Counsel
If your company’s response is inadequate or if you face retaliation after reporting the harassment, don’t hesitate to consult with a lawyer.
Legal counsel can offer a clear understanding of your rights and the next steps you can take to seek justice. They can also represent you in negotiations or in court if necessary.
What Are the Laws Against Workplace Sexual Harassment?
The legal framework surrounding workplace sexual harassment is designed to protect employees and hold offending parties accountable. Depending on your location, there are both federal and state laws in place.
In the United States, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits employment discrimination based on sex, which includes protection against sexual harassment. The Act applies to employers with 15 or more employees, including federal, state, and local governments as well as private and public colleges and universities.
Under Title VII, sexual harassment can be considered a form of sex discrimination. The Act forbids both “quid pro quo” harassment (where employment decisions are based on submission to or rejection of unwelcome sexual conduct) and “hostile work environment” harassment
(where the conduct creates an intimidating, hostile, or offensive work environment). The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) is the federal agency charged with enforcing Title VII as well as other employment-related discrimination laws.
State laws may offer additional protections against workplace sexual harassment and can vary significantly from one state to another. Some states have laws that apply to employers with fewer than 15 employees, extending protections to those working for smaller organizations not covered by federal law.
State laws might also allow for longer time frames to file a claim or provide for remedies that are not available under federal law.
It is important to become familiar with the laws specific to your state, as they can offer avenues for recourse beyond federal regulations. A local employment attorney or your state’s fair employment agency can provide information specific to your jurisdiction.
While the laws are in place to protect employees, they also require you to take certain steps. This typically includes reporting the harassment to your employer to give them the chance to address the issue internally. If you skip this step, it may affect your legal claims later.
Therefore, make sure to follow your company’s reporting procedures or, if there are none, report the harassment directly to a supervisor or the human resources department.
Tackling sexual harassment in the workplace is about reclaiming your right to a safe and respectful working environment.
It requires courage and action—telling the harasser to stop, documenting everything, reporting the conduct to the appropriate parties, and, if needed, pursuing legal avenues.
Don’t let the fear of repercussions stop you from advocating for your rights and the rights of others. Silence often perpetuates the cycle of abuse, but your assertiveness can be the catalyst that breaks it.