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Your Questions About Workplace Sexual Harassment Answered

Your rights, how to recognize it, filing a claim, and more

Beth Castle
Managing Editor, InHerSight

Sexual harassment occurs when someone—a friend, a coworker, that stranger on the subway—makes unwanted sexual advances toward you. That includes requests for sexual favors or verbal, physical, or visual harassment. 

In the workplace, sexual harassment can be done by anyone or happen to anyone (manager to employee, intern to CEO, straight man to gay man, woman to man, etc.), and it doesn’t necessarily have to occur during a one-on-one interaction. A suggestive joke made among coworkers chatting in the break room counts if it contributes to a hostile work environment. 

Most women are familiar with sexual harassment in some form or other. (If you’ve been catcalled, you’ve technically been harassed.) In fact, according to the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, it’s estimated that almost a quarter to more than eight in 10 women will experience sexual harassment in the workplace at some point in their lifetime. 

Those stats are bleak, but take heart: You have the legal right to take action if you’ve been or are being sexually harassed, and more and more often, companies that have covered up sexual harassment claims have faced an onslaught of public criticism. Things are changing, albeit very slowly. 

While society is sorting its priorities out, let’s see what you can do to empower yourself if you experience unwanted advances. Here are some of the most frequently asked questions about workplace sexual harassment—from how to spot it and address it to industries that experience it more often than others. 

What are my rights?

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits employers from discriminating on the basis of sex, race, color, national origin, and religion. Sexual harassment sits beneath the sex discrimination umbrella in that Title VII protection. Generally, if you’re experiencing any kind of unwanted sexual advance (verbal, physical, written), you are protected. It can also include offensive remarks about your sex.

The law also protects employees from retaliation from filing a charge of discrimination or for participating in an employment discrimination lawsuit.

Title VII applies to all federal, state, and local governments as well as employment and labor organizations.

What type of jobs see the most sexual harassment?

You can experience sexual harassment in any role, but some jobs lend themselves to more instances of harassment. These are a few scenarios the Institute for Women’s Policy Research flags as top contributors to workplace discomfort: 

  • Working for tips—Workers in food services and hospitality roles account for 14 percent of the harassment charges filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). This includes jobs in restaurants, hotels, bars, and the like, and harassment comes from all angles: from managers, coworkers, and customers.

  • Working in isolation—Vulnerability is a key driver of sexual harassment. If you’re working alone (maybe cleaning someone’s hotel room or acting as an at-home nurse), there’s no one else around to keep other people in check.

  • Lack of legal immigration status or having only a temporary work visa—The fear of “standing out” and losing their immigration status keeps many undocumented workers from reporting sexual harassment or assault. As a result, workers in agriculture, food processing, factories, domestic jobs, and janitorial services experience high rates of sexual harassment.

  • A male-dominated industry—The fewer women you have in your office, the more likely you are to experience sexual harassment. The same holds true for traditionally male-oriented industries such as construction, finance, economics, and the military. 

  • An office with lots of power imbalances—Even if you’re in a woman-dominated field, if all the managers or executives are men, you’re more likely to experience sexual harassment. That’s because there’s a clear power differential, and women are lower on the totem pole.

How can companies prevent sexual harassment?

It’s important for companies to address sexual harassment clearly and consistently.

Here are three steps companies should take:

  • Adopt a sexual harassment policy—And put it in your employee handbook. It should include the definition of sexual harassment and why the company prohibits sexual harassment as well as clear repercussions, reporting procedures, and statements regarding your commitment to investigating claims.

  • Train your employees—This isn’t just an onboarding exercise. Revisit the policy once a year, and offer safe scenarios to explain what is and isn’t sexual harassment 

  • Educate your managers—Teach supervisors how to deal with sexual harassment claims. Once a year, remind them of the specific steps they need to take and how they should address their employees’ concerns.

  • Enforce your sexual harassment policy—It’s not enough to simply document the consequences, you should be consistent and unflinching in your enforcement of the prohibition.

It’s also a good idea to talk to your employees often to get an idea of how your workplace culture is shifting. And don’t forget that all complaints are worth investigating. That’s important.

How do I know if I’m being sexually harassed?

In general, every type of sexual harassment in the workplace can be divided into one of two categories: 

1. Quid pro quo harassment—You’re promised an employment benefit if you submit to unwelcome sexual advances, or you’re threatened with retribution if you don’t submit to unwelcome sexual advances.

2. Hostile environment harassment—Your work environment is made abusive as a result of harassment.

Examples of each can be far-ranging, but it’s important to remember that all harassment is harassment. In the workplace, there’s no “better” or “worse.” There’s just “wrong.”

Here are a few examples of sexual harassment in the workplace we’ve seen before:

  • Sending suggestive memos or emails

  • Sharing sexually explicit images or videos

  • Telling lewd jokes

  • Making sexual comments about a coworker’s appearance or body

  • Using suggestive hand gestures

  • Commenting on someone’s sexual orientation or gender identity

  • Unwarranted touching, like rubbing, brushing up against someone, or massaging someone’s shoulders

  • Asking coworkers about their sexual history or sharing your own sexual anecdotes

What should I do if I’m being sexually harassed?

Address it immediately. If a coworker makes an off-color comment about your legs once, and you think they’ve crossed a line, say something like this:

Please don’t talk about my body that way. It makes me uncomfortable.

You’re making me uncomfortable, please stop.

If the comments continue, however, you need to take more thorough steps to address the problem:

  1. Write it down—Write down the details (time, date, place, witnesses) of each incident. Ask people who saw the exchange to write an account for you, or store a record of any email exchanges you might have had.

  1. Protect your job—Harassers often lash out, defending themselves by slandering your job performance. Don’t let that happen. Get a copy of or take notes on your personnel file and performance reviews. 

  1. Report the behavior—You should report the harassment to your supervisor and to human resources immediately. It’s best to report the behavior in writing, but if you decide to report it only verbally, the employer will still have to investigate. 

  1. Report it again—Be prepared to talk to someone higher up if your supervisor or HR ignores your complaint. Again, do it in writing and include the evidence and documentation you gathered (plus your original complaint) to present to senior leadership.

If that doesn’t work, you have a bigger fish to fry. Keep reading.

Will my harasser be fired if my employer takes action on my claim?

Not necessarily. Unless the claim shows consistent sexual harassment or is a severe case, your harasser will probably receive special training or will be transferred from your department.

What’s important to remember here is that whether they are fired from their job or not is not your responsibility. Sexual harassment is wrong, you have the right to be free from such advances.

Will I have to be part of an investigation if I report?

Yes. It’s your employer’s duty. Your coworkers might have to answer a few questions. Your harasser might find out you reported them. These are both possibilities.

Should that stop you? That’s your choice, and there’s no fault on you if it does. That’s a lot of drama to deal with day in and day out.

The alternatives aren’t great, though: You’ll either have to continue dealing with the harasser, or you’ll have to start looking for another job to escape them.

What do I do if my employer doesn’t act on my sexual harassment claim?

If you’ve tried all the internal company routes and your employer still isn’t addressing your sexual harassment claim, it’s time to talk to the EEOC. They’ll investigate your claim in-depth (employers hate that).

You should file a claim using the EEOC’s online portal. Submit all the information you have about your situation. After that, they’ll review your inquiry and interview you to determine whether you can file a harassment charge.

After investigating, the EEOC may serve as a mediator between you and your employer to try to get you both to reach a settlement. 

If your employer refuses to settle or the sexual harassment doesn’t stop after the mediation, you should Request a Notice of Right to Sue from the EEOC. Don’t get fed up and skip this step, as it’s important to your case: It proves you tried to go the EEOC route and nothing came of it.

Once you have the notice, you can sue. Get an employment lawyer who can help you navigate the specific laws of your state. And if your worried about money? Don’t worry too much. Most employment lawyers will take clients on a contingency-fee basis, so they only get paid if they win. (On the flip side, that can sometimes result in a suit simply reimbursing attorney fees and court costs.)

What if I report the sexual harassment to my employer and they retaliate?

Scroll back up the top, and read your rights again really fast. At every step in this process, you have the right to make a sexual harassment claim. Any employer that fires you, cuts your pay, or finds some other way to retaliate because you spoke to your HR department or got the EEOC involved is in the wrong. You can and should sue them for damages. 

If this happens, the EEOC can help.

Read more: How to Tell if What You're Seeing Is Retaliation—And What to Do About It

What if I really want to quit?

You can, but if you’re going to sue, you need to wait to quit your job until you go through the EEOC process. Quitting in the middle of a company claim or the EEOC investigation could jeopardize your case because you’ll no longer be an employee at the company, and therefore, not protected. That means you likely won’t have a lawsuit anymore. 

What should I do if I witness sexual harassment?

Advocate for your coworker, either in the moment or by taking steps to ensure their safety and comfort in the office. 

  • Stop the harassment—Interrupt or distract from the remarks that are making the environment hostile

  • Talk to the harasser—Don’t be afraid to call someone out. Sometimes victims aren’t ready to talk about what’s happening. You can be their voice.

  • Report what you’ve seen—Talk to HR or a supervisor about what’s been happening. A written account is preferred.

  • Get other coworkers on your side—You don’t need to stage an intervention, but you should get fellow coworkers to work toward a more inclusive and welcoming atmosphere. If you know someone else has witnessed the sexual harassment you did, ask them to report it as well. There’s strength in numbers.

We’re all adults. This all seems unnecessary. Who cares if I make a sexual joke or two?

Quick answer: You don’t know who cares, and that’s why educating yourself on matters of sexual harassment is important. What’s funny or appropriate to you might not be to someone else. (For the record, touching someone without their consent is never appropriate. Ever.)

The longer, more wide-reaching answer: Not to discount what men experience (about 40 percent of men will experience some form of sexual harassment in their lifetime), but women experience sexual harassment in the workplace more often than men do (81 percent), and the negative consequences are staggering. Women have reported physical and mental health problems, career interruptions, and lower wages. As the rise of the #MeToo movement has shown us, sexual harassment also limits women’s opportunities by enforcing a culture of intimidation and discouraging them from pursuing high-paying careers. The gender pay gap is real, and part of the reason it exists ties back to sexual harassment.

So, on behalf of all women, it’s safe to say, the joke is probably not that funny.

Sexual Harassment
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