What is sexual harassment?
Sexual harassment is a form of sexual violence.
The effects of sexual harassment are severe for individuals, workplaces, and whole communities. Today, employers increasingly recognize the importance of taking proactive steps to ensure and support a safer workplace for their employees. Responding appropriately to sexual harassment when it occurs is an important first step.
Sexual harassment includes unwelcome comments, gestures, or physical contact of a sexual nature. Sexual harassment is illegal when it is so frequent or severe that it creates a hostile or offensive work environment, interferes with an employee’s work performance, or affects employment decisions - such as the victim being fired or demoted.
Sexual harassment can include:
- Offensive remarks about a person’s sex, gender, gender presentation, or sexual orientation
- Ongoing comments or teasing of a sexual nature that make someone uncomfortable
- Unwelcome sexual advances
- Making sexual favors a condition of employment, promotion, or work assignment (“quid pro quo” harassment)
- Touching another person in a sexual way
- Exposing someone to sexually explicit materials without their consent
These behaviors are considered sexual harassment regardless of the gender of the victim or the person committing the harassment.
What to do if you've been a victim
You are not alone, help is available.
If you are experiencing sexual harassment at work, you may not know what to do. Experts at PCAR and your local rape crisis center are trained to assist you. Contact your local rape crisis center for 24/7, confidential support.
Do what works for you
Each person’s experience and situation is different. Seek support from someone you trust—at work or in your personal life—and know you are not alone. A rape crisis counselor can help you identify and consider options.
Tell the offender to stop
If you feel safe doing so, tell them face-to-face or in writing. Be specific about the behavior that is bothering you, and tell them that you don’t like it and you want them to stop.
Keep a journal of every incident of harassment, including what happened, where, when, and who was there. Save harassing notes, emails, or pictures. Keep notes and copies of any communication you have about the harassment. Also keep performance reviews or other records that mention the quality of your work. For privacy and safety, you may want to keep these files at home.
Know your rights
Title VII of the Civil Rights Act prohibits workplace discrimination of many forms and requires employers to promptly investigate all complaints and take action to fix the situation if they find that sexual harassment has occurred. They are also required to keep sexual harassment complaints confidential, although they will likely interview the person harassing you and any witnesses. It is illegal for an employer to punish you for filing a complaint or participating in an investigation of sexual harassment.
Read your company’s policy on sexual harassment
Check your employee handbook or personnel policies for details on filing a sexual harassment complaint. If you are part of a union, ask your union representative about grievance procedures.
If you feel safe, tell your supervisor or someone else listed in your company’s sexual harassment policy. It can be helpful to make this report in writing. Be specific about what happened, steps you have taken to address it, and how you want your employer to fix the problem. You can also contact local law enforcement or the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission for more information about your legal rights and options. You have a right to file a complaint with these agencies if you believe you have been sexually harassed at work. In most cases, you have 180 days to file a complaint, although federal and state employees may have as little as 30 days.
Employers have a responsibility to prevent and respond to sexual harassment.
Employers should ensure their policies and procedures are up to date and should meet with staff to reinforce expectations of behavior in the workplace. Empower frontline supervisors and mid-level managers to enforce those policies and quickly reprimand violations with responses that are on par with the seriousness of the violation.
Addressing lower-level problems such as crass comments and jokes helps to ensure the environment does not erode into one where problematic staff may escalate to more threatening acts such as inappropriate touching.
The effects of sexual harassment can be serious for victims, their co-workers and family.
Addressing sexual harassment in the workplace involves legal, ethical, and social issues. Your decisions in these three areas will impact the people and the culture in your workplace.
State and federal laws require employers to provide their employees with workplaces that are safe and free from harassment or discrimination. This includes setting and enforcing workplace policies that prohibit sexual harassment, taking immediate action to stop harassment if it occurs, and protecting the rights of people who experience or witness harassment. If you see or hear about sexual harassment at work, it is important to consider legal requirements or consequences that may be involved for you and the people with whom you work.
Deeply held values - such as fairness, kindness, respect and concern for others - also come into play in the ways we address sexual harassment at work. Your own moral compass will help to guide you in supporting your co-workers and responding ethically if sexual harassment occurs in your workplace, and will determine how you feel about your choices at the end of the day.
Our words and actions - or lack thereof - related to sexual harassment influence the people and environment around us. Whether you speak up or stay silent, take action or ignore harassing behavior towards others, you shape the culture of your workplace. What kind of workplace culture do you want to build, and how can you contribute to making it safe and welcoming?
Sexual harassment resources:
Seeking help if you are being sexually harassed
Taking action if you see or hear about sexual harassment