Types of Sexual Harassment at Work

Types of Sexual Harassment and Strategies for Addressing Them

Sexual harassment in the workplace is a form of illegal discrimination. That sounds simple enough, but unfortunately, sexual harassment often can also prove difficult to identify and address. Victims of sexual harassment aren’t always even sure they were harassed. Instead, something about an interaction with a coworker may just feel off or wrong, but victims could worry they’re overreacting. Even when harassment is clear, it can take an enormous amount of courage to confront a harasser and change a workplace culture.

California’s Department of Fair Employment and Housing defines sexual harassment as:

[U]nwanted sexual advances, or visual, verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature. This definition includes many forms of offensive behavior and includes gender-based harassment of a person of the same sex as the harasser.

What does that definition mean in practice? More importantly, what should you do if it happens to you?

Types of Sexual Harassment

Some of the more common forms of sexual harassment include:

  • Making unwelcome sexual advancesSexual harassment occurs when one fellow employee, supervisor or officer of a company (hereinafter “coworker”)  engages another in a sexual manner or context; the advance is unwelcome, and often, may implicate the victim’s job. This sort of sexual harassment can prove as obvious as a creepy boss repeatedly asking his young assistant out on dates, to more subtle actions like one coworker angling for alone time with another coworker. True, showing romantic interest in a coworker is not always sexual harassment. However, any time a sexual advance toward a coworker could imply the risk of a change in the coworker’s job if he or she says “no,” sexual harassment may occur.
  • Making sexual comments about coworkersSexual harassment often occurs when a workplace culture tolerates employees making sexual comments about other employees. A “frat house” or “sorority” work environment where employees of a particular gender or sexual orientation joke about other coworkers’ physical attractiveness or body parts, for example, creates a high probability of sexual harassment.
  • Inappropriate physical contactCoworkers commit sexual harassment when they physically touch other coworkers in unwelcome sexual manners. Patting a coworker on the behind, giving uninvited shoulder massages, or groping a coworker would all qualify as sexual harassment in most circumstances. However, even nuanced physical contact can prove problematic. Coworkers may feel uncomfortable about being touched in the small of their back (such as in a restaurant setting), for example, by the amount of time a handshake lasts, or by a coworker who insists on giving hugs.
  • Sexualized discussions and conductWhen one coworker engages another in sexual topics, a strong risk of sexual harassment presents itself. Forwarding sexually explicit images or emails to coworkers, sharing details about one’s sex life or asking coworkers about theirs, and cracking sexually explicit jokes all can violate anti-sexual harassment laws. So, too, can putting coworkers in sexualized situations, such as holding meetings at strip clubs, or calling an employee over to a hotel room late at night.
  • Basing decisions on sexual factors – Any decision to hire, fire, promote, or demote an employee because of the employee’s willingness or unwillingness to engage in sexual activity usually constitutes sexual harassment. This includes demanding that an employee perform sexual favors in exchange for career advancement, choosing an employee for termination based on whether he or she laughs at dirty jokes, or assigning an employee to a work team because of his or her physical attractiveness.

Addressing Workplace Sexual Harassment

There is no uniform strategy for dealing with a sexual harassment situation in the workplace. Every victim of sexual harassment must deal with an often-confusing, stressful collection of factors that feel uniquely challenging. That is one of the reasons sexual harassment so often proves difficult to confront. Taking measures against sexual harassment requires immense courage.

The important thing to know is that you are not alone. Some ways to confront sexual harassment in the workplace that may help you as they have helped others include:

Meeting With an Experienced Sexual Harassment Attorney

Because standing up to sexual harassment can feel like a minefield, meeting with an experienced sexual harassment attorney (but not an attorney who works for the victim’s employer) can often prove the safest and most productive first step. An attorney can help you sort through the facts and emotions, lending an objective eye to a situation that feels intensely personal to you. An attorney can also make suggestions for how to move forward while protecting yourself, your legal rights, and your career. Speaking with an attorney is also strictly confidential, which means whatever you tell an attorney stays with your attorney until you decide otherwise.

Being as Clear as Possible With Coworkers About Unwelcome Conduct

It’s not always easy to tell coworkers that you find the sexual nature of their conduct inappropriate. Often, you may feel the need to consider power dynamics and job consequences. Still, talk to your attorney about whether, or how, to most appropriately make it clear to coworkers that their sexualized talk, sexual advances, inappropriate touching, or other actions are unwelcome. Doing so with your attorney’s advice can help substantially in the event that you must take further action. Sometimes, expressing your concerns will put an end to the harassment altogether. Even if it doesn’t, you may have laid the groundwork for proving that sexual harassment occurred, which can help protect your rights down the road.

Speaking With Human Resources

Most larger workplaces with human resources departments also have processes for dealing with sexual harassment complaints. If yours is such a workplace, your attorney may advise you to submit a written complaint as an important step in addressing harassment. Your attorney can also help you draft this complaint. A professional workplace should implement its procedures and address your concerns right away after receiving a complaint. If it does not, that will likely prove something your attorney takes into account advising you on the path forward.

Always consult an attorney before going to H.R. In most companies, H.R. sides with management, and H.R. personnel often immediately consult with general counsel or an attorney for the company before taking a complaint or before initiating an investigation. Unless you consult with an attorney, the company will have an advantage over you.

Filing a Complaint

With an experienced attorney’s guidance, it may also prove worthwhile for you to file a complaint with one of the state or local agencies in your area tasked with enforcing workplace discrimination laws. Before filing that, you must understand what the process involves, and the potential outcomes. An attorney can help you understand these issues.

An Experienced Sexual Harassment Attorney Can Help With All of the Above

Victims of workplace sexual harassment often feel alone, scared, and helpless. They don’t have to. By educating themselves about sexual harassment, speaking with an experienced attorney, and following in the footsteps of the brave women and men who have confronted sexual harassment before them, victims can obtain justice for themselves and other potential victims.