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Two co-workers working closely together, with neither asking: what is sexual harassment?

What is sexual harassment? How can I spot it?

Dhanesh MisirVerified

Staff Writer


12 positive ratings
How many variations of harassment are there?

The three primary forms of workplace harassment are: sexually based conduct, hostile work environment, and quid pro quo. 

What is sexual harassment? For starters, when it pops up in the workplace it can be both divisive and confusing. Victims of harassment can suffer mentally, physically and even professionally, depending on their circumstances. It’s not uncommon for an employee to end up taking sick leave or even quitting their job in order to get away from their harasser. In some cases, the accuser is forced from their position if their accusations fail to hold up. Otherwise, the accused might not be reprimanded, but would become aware of the complaint – another problem in itself.

Unfortunately, there are also instances where the accused is relieved of their position, but the victim ends up alienated from the rest of the workforce. Since much of the drama occurs behind closed doors, other employees could fail to empathize with the victim, with some even blaming them for getting a well-liked coworker fired.

However, the potential fallout from sexual harassment accusations isn’t limited to the victim and the accused. Employers provide seminars and training on sexual harassment for a reason – conducting internal investigations and dealing with lawsuits can make for a big drain on both time and money. Turnover can be costly as well, as the employees that are released due to harassment charges will need to be replaced.

Beyond that, an incident related to sexual harassment can impact the entire dynamic of a workplace. If one person has been harassed, and the problem isn’t addressed correctly (or quickly enough), other employees could feel that they’re in an environment that requires them to tolerate harassment and inappropriate conduct. Worse, some could fear that they won’t be able to advance within the company without performing sexual favors.

With all that being said, there's still a great deal of uncertainty regarding the definition of sexual harassment. Here's a look at the signs of harassment, the types of sexual harassment, and what you should do if you suspect you’re a victim.

Identifying sexual harassment in the workplace

Although many victims of sexual harassment don’t come forward due to fear, there are also people who fail to do so from uncertainty. A sexual harassment charge can send a person’s entire career off-course, which is why it’s important to know if what you’re facing fits the description. Sometimes a written correspondence can be misconstrued, or an innocent remark could be misinterpreted. When you’re working with people day in and day out, incidents like this are bound to happen. That doesn’t mean your discomfort should be set aside, however.

Putting a stop to harassment can be easier said than done.

The more you understand about sexual harassment, the more confident you can feel when it’s time to bring your concerns to light. If your workspace can’t be a place in which you feel comfortable, then what is? Sexual harassment is typically associated with unwanted sexual advances and inappropriate remarks, however, workplace sexual harassment is more likely to be taking place if any of these conditions are also present:

  • You believe submitting or not submitting to the conduct will have an impact on work aspirations, like promotions or raises 
  • You feel you'll need to submit to the conduct in order to get a new job or keep your existing position
  • The conduct in question is harming your work performance, or contributing to what you feel is a hostile, uncomfortable, or intimidating working environment

When the question “what is sexual harassment” arises, it’s important to remember that gender doesn’t always matter. Harassers, as well as victims of sexual harassment, can be either male or female. Although most victims are female, men can be harassed as well, and for them, there can be added shame in stepping forward due to their sex and societal expectations.

Harassment can occur between peers, between a supervisor and an employee, or even between employees and third parties. It also doesn’t need to be reported by the victim – anyone who is impacted by the issue can come forward. As for location, sexual harassment isn’t limited to the office. It can also occur at company events and retreats.

Looking at the types of sexual harassment

Sexual harassment comes in several different forms, each with its own distinctive qualities. Each one presents a serious issue, though, and there is no type of harassment that should ever be tolerated once discovered. Doug, an Attorney on JustAnswer, offers a general definition of sexual harassment:

“The EEOC defines sexual harassment,” he explains, “as having occurred when submission to or rejection of this conduct explicitly or implicitly affects an individual's employment, unreasonably interferes with an individual's work performance or creates an intimidating, hostile or offensive work environment." In a way, Doug’s explanation touches on every type of sexual harassment. For a more detailed look at each, the variations of sexual harassment are as follows:

  • Sexually based conduct harassment – So long as it doesn’t violate company policy, inter-office relations should be considered a private matter. Harassment in this regard begins where the conduct of one person isn’t invited or welcomed by the other. If the behavior of one employee is offensive, but still tolerated by the other, this is still harassment and it should be addressed.
  • Hostile work environment harassment – This form of harassment is characterized by a workplace that has become intolerable for the victim due to ongoing gender or sexuality oriented comments or activities. When this kind of behavior prevents you from doing your job, it is considered hostile work environment sexual harassment. 
  • Quid pro quo harassment – Quid pro quo, or “something for something” in Latin, references the central theme of this harassment variation. Quid pro quo harassment takes place when an employee is asked to exchange sexual favors for a workplace benefit, like a pay raise or promotion. Job applicants may also encounter this form of harassment when interviewing for a position. Unlike the other types of sexual harassment listed here, quid pro quo harassment can only be committed by managers or supervisors, since authority is needed for granting work benefits.

Understanding your options if you believe you’re a sexual harassment victim

Although there is much more awareness compared to years past, most sexual harassment victims are still not coming forward. This is a shame, but it is also somewhat unsurprising: employees think twice before reporting harassment due to fear of retaliation. And sadly, this was a valid concern in years past. According to a study by the EEOC, up to 75% of sexual harassment cases in 2003 involved some form of retaliation.

Harassment at work can range from blatant to subtle.

A more recent study found that just 6% of sexual harassment victims ever make a formal complaint. This fear of coming forward is part of why workplace harassment remains so prominent, but it's easy to understand why a victim wouldn’t want to stick their neck out. Getting labelled as a troublemaker, or offending the harasser (who might continue to work with you, making conditions even more uncomfortable) could make life at work even worse.

Fortunately, things have been moving in the right direction. Although sexual harassment is not a criminal offense (it’s a civil matter, with successful plaintiffs awarded for damages), federal courts have made it clear to employers that sexual harassment in any form should not be tolerated. Steps for prevention have become a requirement for some employers, and in general, if they fail to take immediate and appropriate actions to resolve a sexual harassment charge, they will be held liable. In fact, an employer that doesn’t know about harassment taking place, but who should be aware of it, would also be considered responsible. As such, all employers and managers have a responsibility to actively prevent workplace sexual harassment.

If you’re dealing with harassment at work, keep this in mind! It’s just as big an issue for your employer as it is for you, and it's their job to ensure that you feel safe and comfortable when you go to work for them. Of course, feeling afraid and overwhelmed is a perfectly normal response to harassment – luckily, you’re not alone. If you suspect that you’re the victim of sexual harassment at work, these guidelines can help:

  • Start documenting everything. Everything! When you’re making notes on the various aspects of what you’re dealing with, be sure to include any details you believe might be important. When in doubt, write it down, no matter what. Is sexual harassment going to stop on its own? Not without you doing your part! It’s far better to have too many notes than too few. 
  • Take detailed notes about the harassment itself. This includes the manner of behavior, when it occurred, and where it happened. Also be sure to include any witnesses, as well as any additional details you believe may be important. 
  • Take note of your productivity, including before and after the harassment
  • Catalog any physical changes that have occurred as a result of the harassment. This can include trouble sleeping, depression, weight gain or loss, etc.
  • Document any actions you’ve taken, if any, to discourage the inappropriate conduct at the time of occurrence and afterward
  • Since different companies and employee organizations have different procedures for filing complaints and grievances, be sure to read up on your organization’s policies for sexual harassment. Look at timelines and correct protocols – it won’t guarantee a favorable outcome, but staying within the bounds of policy when you issue your complaint will certainly help your odds. 
  • File the complaint, either with a supervisor or with human resources, depending on your circumstances. Your privacy should be protected throughout the entire process, regardless of which avenue you chose. If you do find that the office rumor mill has gotten wind of your situation, it’s easy to get frustrated. However, it might be possible for your manager or employer to step in and put a stop to this. If gossip persists, it may be categorized as a form of retaliation – in this case, you might have a basis to file another complaint.

Sexual harassment isn’t going to vanish overnight, but as more victims continue to stand up to their harassers, the problem will continue to stand in the spotlight where it can hopefully inspire new, better methods for prevention in the future. Whether you’re a victim, or you know someone who is, following the steps highlighted here can help you get started as you seek justice and the safe, comfortable work environment you deserve.

Still wondering “What is sexual harassment”? For more information on your rights as an employee, or to learn more about harassment in the workplace, ask an Expert on JustAnswer for assistance today!

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