It’s an employer’s responsibility to protect their employees so they have a safe environment to focus on their work. However, not all workspaces are free from danger.
The rise of the #MeToo movement uncovered the daily struggles of workers of all types. It brought global awareness about sexual harassment in the workplace, encouraging victims to come forward, speak out, and share their stories.
Education is key to eliminating workplace harassment. Understanding its impact and implications will help employees and managers create a safe working environment. But before diving into the details, let’s start with a definition of sexual harassment in the workplace.
What Is Sexual Harassment in the Workplace?
Sexual harassment in the workplace is the unwanted or nonconsensual verbal or physical conduct of sexual nature demonstrated in a professional setting. It significantly affects the victim’s employment, performance, and quality of life.
A common example of sexual harassment in the workplace is asking for sexual favors. Other instances include attempted nonconsensual sexual acts and making lewd sexual jokes.
Ultimately, the definition of sexual harassment in the workplace can vary among federal laws. For instance, California law expounds on the definition, stating that the intentions of the harasser need not be a sexual desire for their actions to be considered sexual harassment.
Fast Facts and Stats about Sexual Harassment in the Workplace
With how much misinformation is spread online, it’s essential to understand key stats and facts about sexual harassment to address the issues in your organization responsibly.
- Almost eight in ten women (78.2%) filed a sexual harassment claim between 2018 and 2021 (EEOC)
The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) received over twenty-seven thousand sexual harassment charges, with women filing 78.2% of the total between 2018 and 2021.
Although today, there are more opportunities for women to climb the corporate ladder, this statistic suggests sexual harassment cases in the workplace are nowhere near eradicated and continue to be a problem.
- Only 54.4% of victims have shared their experiences with someone (ILO)
The International Labour Organization (ILO) found that some victims still don’t feel comfortable sharing their stories despite the global awareness of sexual harassment in the workplace. That said, the EEOC noted they received significantly more charges following the popularity of the #MeToo movement, with roughly six thousand seven hundred in 2017 to 7,600 in 2018.
The majority of the respondents (55%) of another ILO survey shared that what was holding them back from disclosing their experiences and potentially whistleblowing was that they thought it was a “waste of time.”
Other top reasons were they feared for their reputation, the unclear procedures for filing a complaint, and the lack of trust in the police, labor inspectors, and community leaders.
- Roughly 38% of employees experience sexual harassment in remote working arrangements (AllVoices)
Even when employees aren’t physically together, they can still experience sexual harassment. Examples of workplace harassment in remote working arrangements include sending sexual and inappropriate images and making suggestive comments over messaging apps.
- More than one in five (22.8%) of employees have experienced harassment in the workplace (ILO)
The ILO surveyed thousands of employees across continents to confirm the scope and prevalence of sexual harassment in the workplace. They found that at least one in five employees has been a victim of such acts, which suggests that employers worldwide still need to continue creating a safer work environment.
Sexual harassment in the workplace can take many forms
What makes sexual harassment in the workplace insidious is that it often doesn’t look the same, nor is it always obvious. It’s possible that it is happening, and you just aren’t aware of it. A few examples of sexual harassment in the workplace include:
- Inappropriate and nonconsensual physical contact
- Sexual favors
- Making offensive and vulgar jokes
- Degrading or sexual comments in the workplace
- Asking intrusive questions about someone’s sex life
- Sharing vulgar and sexually implicit media
Keep in mind that dating a coworker can complicate these definitions. Sexual harassment in the workplace lawyers can guide you in identifying these instances and navigating the nuances, helping you strengthen your case if you decide to file an official claim.
Victims can file two types of sexual harassment charges
Under the law, sexual harassment generally falls into one of two charges: quid pro quo sexual harassment or a hostile work environment. Lawyers for sexual harassment in the workplace will help victims understand the harassment charges they can file.
- Quid pro quo sexual harassment: The Latin phrase quid pro quo means “something for something.” These claims involve situations where an employee’s ability to get hired, promoted, or retain their position depends on a sexual favor from a higher authority colleague. Employees who agree can still file this complaint because they can cite the employee-employer power dynamics as the basis.
- Hostile work environment: This type of harassment happens when the victim’s colleagues or superiors make sexual comments, making it feel less safe and more intimidating and hostile. A hostile work environment can negatively affect employees’ ability to do their jobs.
Examples of Sexual Harassment in the Workplace
The EEOC’s sexual harassment in the workplace definition emphasizes that it’s unlawful to harass someone because of their sex. They establish that sexual harassment is any unwelcome sexual advances that do not have to be sexual in nature.
Some people may understand the EEOC’s definition differently, which can lead to legal complications. Below are a few concrete examples of what the law may deem sexual harassment to help clarify the matter.
1. Inappropriate comments about a person’s body or appearance
When you receive or overhear someone making a sexual or offensive comment about your or another person’s appearance, that could be grounds for sexual harassment. For example, if someone remarks how large someone’s body part is or how tight their top is, and it offends the victim, this may be considered sexual harassment under EEOC.
2. Unwanted requests for sexual favors or dates
The EEOC makes it clear that asking for sexual favors is unlawful and considered sexual harassment. An example would be a manager intentionally preventing an employee from being promoted unless they agreed to fulfill the manager’s sexual favor.
Another potential sexual harassment scenario involves dating. The act of asking a colleague out on a date is not illegal. That said, if, for example, someone is leveraging their position of authority to persuade or intimidate the victim into agreeing to go out, that may be considered sexual harassment.
3. Spreading or displaying indecent and sexual images
Indecent and sexual images are unwelcome and inappropriate in the professional setting. Recipients, viewers, and victims of the media may claim that such behavior creates a hostile work environment that impedes their productivity and ability to work.
4. Inappropriate and unwanted touching
A blatant example of sexual harassment is nonconsensual and inappropriate physical contact. These kinds of touches make victims uneasy and uncomfortable at work.
Inappropriate and unwanted touching would be a colleague placing their hands on another’s shoulders to give an unwanted massage. Another would be someone brushing up against a certain body part purposely but always playing it off as an accident.
5. Making sexually offensive gestures
These include hand gestures and facial expressions that suggest sexual activity. Witnesses may be offended, and it creates a hostile work environment if it offends them. Victims may file a sexual harassment claim if harassers aim the gestures at them.
6. Physically blocking your path or movements
Victims may be uncomfortable with this behavior and inappropriate physical conduct, especially if harassers block their path and look at them suggestively. These cases can hinder the victim’s ability to work, which supports a hostile work environment claim.
The case may escalate if such frequent inappropriate behavior creates a toxic work atmosphere, leading the employee to resign.
7. Following you around
A clear example of this sexual harassment is if a colleague acts like a stalker. They go wherever you go, from the pantry to your desk, making you uncomfortable. The case may be more severe if they appear at events you attend outside of work.
8. Derogatory remarks
The EEOC states it’s unlawful to harass anyone because of their sex. Therefore, offensive and intimidating remarks—teasing someone about their sexual orientation, making sexist comments, or calling a person using derogatory names—fall under sexual harassment in the workplace.
9. Asking unwelcome questions about the victim’s sex life
Getting to know your colleagues is important to build a stronger professional bond. However, if someone starts asking you about the private details of your sex life, you have no legal obligation to respond. These invasive, personal questions can be considered sexual harassment because they’re often unwelcome and uncalled for.
10. Making offensive and vulgar jokes
Although the EEOC has no legal issue with teasing and joking around at work, it can become a concern if the topics are too sexual. For example, if the harasser makes fun of a colleague’s physical appearance or sexual history, which is inappropriate behavior that victims can claim as sexual harassment.
If an employer knew about the sexual harassment incident but ignored or failed to prevent or stop the action, the employer may be liable for inaction.
Sexual Harassment Prevention in the Workplace: 8 Actionable Steps
Understanding and recognizing sexual harassment isn’t enough. Once you notice sexual harassment in your workplace, below are a few ways to respond.
1. Seek guidance from lawyers for sexual harassment cases in the workplace
It’s common for harassers to violate more than one law when they sexually harass an employee or create a hostile work environment.
Licensed employment law attorneys will inform you of what legal subsequent actions you can take to handle the harasser and protect the victim and your organization. For example, they can guide you in filing a charge with the state employment rights agency and the EEOC.
2. Document everything and find employees with a similar experience
Supporting evidence will be invaluable to strengthening your case when filing a sexual harassment claim. Once you notice sexual harassment in your workplace, write down everything about it. Try to answer the following questions while documenting the occurrence:
- Who was the harasser?
- Who was the victim?
- What did the harasser do or say?
- When and where did it occur?
Other witnesses and victims can help you create a more detailed account of what happened. Reach out to them to help you bring justice to the harasser.
3. Provide sexual harassment awareness and training in the workplace
Almost two in five respondents (38.3%) of this ILO survey answered they did not disclose information about harassment or violence in the workplace because they didn’t know what to do.
You can work with your HR department to arrange sexual harassment training in the workplace to educate your colleagues about the issue. These training sessions can include the following topics:
- What the EEOC defines as sexual harassment
- Examples of sexual harassment in the workplace
- What can one do if they were a victim or witness of sexual harassment
4. Create a system for reporting sexual harassment cases in the workplace
According to the ILO survey, 42.5% of respondents answered that unclear procedures were barriers to disclosing harassment and violence at work. This statistic underscores the need to create clear and effective systems for victims and witnesses to report sexual harassment in the workplace.
The Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) provides a form with questions you can ask the accuser during your internal investigation to learn more about their experience. The insights you gather from them will inform how you should build your reporting system to prevent such harassment from occurring again.
5. Revisit your company’s policy on sexual harassment
An open conversation with your colleagues about what needs to change to prevent sexual harassment in the workplace will provide you with valuable insights. You can use their responses and input from your legal team and HR managers to craft a comprehensive and clear sexual harassment policy.
The policy can include what constitutes sexual harassment and sanctions once you’ve identified the harasser. The ILO offers a sample sexual harassment policy document you can reference, while the EEOC provides policy tips to help you write your own.
6. Hold harassers accountable
There’s no point in developing a clear sexual harassment policy if no one follows or suffers the consequences of breaking it. Accountability is crucial to cultivating an environment that has zero tolerance for sexual harassment. An employment law attorney and your HR managers can guide you on what disciplinary actions you may take following a sexual harassment incident.
7. Offer resources to help your colleagues
Hotlines to government agencies, such as the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing, the Sexual Violence Prevention Program, and the Equal Opportunity Commission, are great resources to provide in the workplace to help employees who need dire assistance with sexual harassment cases.
Additionally, you can partner with psychologists or HR professionals to help you develop resources to help victims recover from the incident.
8. Cultivate a healthy work environment
The best way for your organization to respond to sexual harassment cases is to prevent them from happening in the first place. A healthy work environment is one where everyone supports and respects each other and no one feels threatened or objectified.
You don’t need to wait for others to take action against such cases. Take the initiative to speak out, change your office policies, and create a safer work environment for everyone.
Sexual Harassment Training in the Workplace
The law requires sexual harassment training. People may likely forget proper workplace etiquette or how to spot sexual harassment throughout the year. These training sessions will help employees brush up on their sexual harassment prevention knowledge.
States will have different laws and standards for conducting sexual harassment training. Familiarizing yourself with these laws allows you to avoid legal issues while helping your colleagues recall sexual harassment prevention best practices.
For instance, if your business is in California, Government Code section 12950.1 requires employers with five or more employees to organize and provide sexual harassment training and education sessions once every two years. Nonsupervisory employees must undergo one hour of classroom or training time, while supervisory employees require two hours.
As another example, if you operate in New York, the federal government has sexual harassment training requirements. Since there is no minimum number of hours employees must complete each year, they must undergo training that meets the minimum standards.
Employment law attorneys in your home state will guide you through the compliance process to develop and organize adequate sexual harassment training sessions for your organization.
It’s important to note that organizing these training sessions does not protect employers from sexual harassment liability. They are still held accountable for sexual harassment cases they were aware of but took no action to prevent or stop.
Stand Up for a Safe Workplace
Employers must educate themselves to know how to prevent sexual harassment in the workplace since it’s their responsibility to keep their employees safe from harm. They can work with their human resources department to host sexual harassment training in the workplace.
Employees can also benefit from learning more. They can document instances and contact witnesses and victims to build a solid case to file in their human resources. They may also work with lawyers to strengthen their sexual harassment prevention in the workplace efforts.
Given these cases’ specificity and complexity, it’s best to work with highly experienced employment attorneys, such as Shegerian & Associates. A past client was once awarded $1.5 million as part of the verdict for a workplace harassment case. If you’re looking to prevent sexual harassment in the workplace, contact us today for assistance.