Sexual harassment in the workplace has been played for laughs in old movies, cartoons, and TV shows. The stereotypical depiction involves a company president who cannot resist chasing his young, female secretary around his office desk. However, sexual harassment is no joke. It can be emotionally and professionally devastating for victims. It is also against the law.
In this article, we will discuss the various forms of sexual harassment, explain how to avoid unintentionally sexually harassing someone, and provide guidance on what you should do if you or a coworker experience sexual harassment.
What is Sexual Harassment in the Workplace?
There are many definitions of sexual harassment, but in the context of employment, it is considered a form of unlawful discrimination under the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Sexual harassment includes unwanted sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other unwelcome verbal, visual, or physical conduct of a sexual nature that the victim considers offensive or threatening.
Blatant sexual acts like groping, sexual assault, coercing sex acts, and quid pro quo harassment clearly constitute sexual harassment. However, less obvious behaviors can also qualify as harassment if they occur repeatedly. These may include:
- Sexual comments, jokes, or questions
- Derogatory remarks about gender, gender identity, or sexual orientation
- Commenting on physical appearance
- Ogling or inappropriate staring
- Displaying sexual images or objects
- Sexually explicit graffiti or gestures
- Discussions about sexual exploits
The emotional toll of sexual harassment can be severe. Victims may feel afraid, powerless, ashamed, or even somehow responsible. Harassers often rely on victims staying silent out of fear. However, ignoring incidents or laughing them off tends to enable further abuse.
The Obligation to Speak Up Against Sexual Harassment
Both victims and witnesses have an obligation to speak up when someone’s speech or actions are offensive. It is also crucial to formally report sexual harassment behaviors to management or HR, regardless of who the harasser is. Shutting down offensive conduct is everyone’s responsibility.
Although most reported harassment involves men targeting women, men can also be sexually harassed by women or by other men. Likewise, the intended victim is not the only one impacted. Anyone subjected to offensive statements or actions can be affected, regardless of gender.
Each person judges for themselves what they consider disturbing or harassing. Even subtle abuse over time can be devastating. It is possible to unintentionally harass someone by being unaware that your behavior or speech bothers them.
For example, a waitress at a restaurant may not mind some harmless flirting from a customer. However, that same behavior towards an office secretary could feel threatening and harassing because of the power dynamics of the workplace. The difference is not in the actions themselves, but in how they make the victim feel.
Sexual Harassment Policies in the Workplace
Most employers have written sexual harassment policies to clearly define expectations for appropriate conduct, language, and dress in their workplaces. These policies are typically found in employee handbooks.
Policies often prohibit or strongly discourage employees from dating coworkers. This helps prevent coerced relationships and abuse of power dynamics. No one should ever feel pressured into unwanted advances out of fear of losing opportunities or facing discipline.
You can help prevent harassment by avoiding behaviors that could reasonably offend others. This includes:
- Staring at coworkers in a sexual manner
- Unnecessary or unwanted touching
- Bringing in racy magazines or pictures
- Visiting inappropriate websites
- Making sexual comments or suggestions
Think carefully about what you say and do to avoid inadvertent offenses. Never assume anything is truly private at work either. Conversations, emails, and internet activity may be overseen.
Recognizing and Documenting Sexual Harassment
It can be difficult to discern sexual motivations. However, if something makes you uncomfortable, speak up. If it happens to you directly, clearly state it is unwelcome and crosses a line. If you witness harassment, say you believe it is inappropriate. This “bystander intervention” helps rein in unacceptable conduct early before it escalates.
After any concerning incident, document the details in writing, including:
- Date, time, and location
- People involved and any witnesses
- What was said and done that was offensive
- Why it felt harassing or inappropriate
This creates a factual record of events. If the behavior was truly innocent, the person will hopefully modify their conduct when informed it bothered you. However, if it happens again, you now have documentation to provide management.
Reporting Sexual Harassment in the Workplace
Reporting harassment can be challenging due to embarrassment, anxiety, fear of retaliation, or concern about not being believed. However, coming forward is not only the right thing to do, but your responsibility. Employers need these issues brought to their attention in order to take corrective action.
When meeting with your supervisor or HR, bring your written account of what transpired. Answer questions honestly and accurately. You may be asked to sign a statement summarizing the discussion – carefully review it before signing.
Management will then confidentially interview the alleged harasser about their side of the story. They will be informed of the allegations, questioned about their conduct, and warned that it must cease. How the situation is resolved depends on the nature of the harassment and other factors. At minimum, the harasser will be cautioned to stop or face discipline.
Preventing Sexual Harassment Creates a Better Workplace
As we have seen, sexual harassment should not be tolerated or ignored in the workplace. Bringing it into the open is the best way to prevent abusive behaviors from recurring. Follow these tips:
- Know and comply with your employer’s policies
- Be mindful of how your own actions could offend
- Speak up when a coworker’s conduct bothers you
- Properly document concerning incidents
- Report sexual harassment to management
By avoiding offensive behaviors, speaking out against harassment, and reporting issues, you can help foster a professional environment of mutual respect.