5 Real Examples of Sexual Harassment in the Workplace


Sexual harassment in the workplace is a pervasive issue that can take different forms. Some are blatantly obvious, while others are more subtle. Yet all variations are harmful and distressing for victims.

As an HR professional, recognizing what constitutes sexual harassment is the first step in preventing it in the workplace. Other steps may also be required by law, depending on the state your company operates in.

But what exactly is sexual harassment? What does it look like, and where does the law draw the line?

Put simply, sexual harassment involves unwanted conduct of a sexual nature including physical, verbal, and non-verbal behaviors. In the workplace, like anywhere else, these behaviors are not only illegal, but detrimental to the health of your organization. Employees have the right to work in a safe environment free from harassment and discrimination.

Recognizing this kind of behavior in real-world scenarios is crucial to preventing it. To help you better combat this kind of behavior and promote a healthier company culture, let’s define sexual harassment and look at a few examples.

Understanding Sexual Harassment

It's essential for employees, employers, and HR professionals to have a thorough understanding of what is considered harassment. According to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), sexual harassment is “unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical harassment of a sexual nature.”

This behavior can occur between co-workers, supervisors, and subordinates, or even with non-employees such as clients or customers. Sexual harassment can happen between individuals of the same or different genders and is not limited to just one type of behavior.

The #MeToo movement that started in 2017 prompted more women and men to step forward and share their experiences related to sexual harassment. Since then, movements like #MeToo have sparked important conversations about workplace dynamics, accountability, and the need to foster respectful environments.

Facts and Figures

While you may understand that sexual harassment is a problem that exists, it may be difficult to conceptualize just how pervasive it really is. Here are some statistics that help to illustrate how sexual harassment occurs at scale:

Types and Forms of Sexual Harassment

As previously mentioned, sexual harassment encompasses a wide range of unwelcome behaviors of a sexual nature. These behaviors can be categorized into three main forms:

All of these types of harassment can create an unsafe work environment and have major negative impacts on the victims. Here is a breakdown of each type:

Physical Contact and Unwanted Touching

Physical sexual harassment involves unwanted physical contact or touching of a sexual nature. Examples include:

Victims of physical harassment often experience feelings of violation, discomfort, and powerlessness. This type of harassment can be particularly traumatic, as it involves a direct invasion of one's personal boundaries.

Verbal Harassment

Verbal sexual harassment includes any sexually explicit comments, jokes, innuendos, or propositions directed at a person. Examples of verbal harassment may include:

Verbal harassment can create a hostile work environment by causing emotional distress, humiliation, and fear of retaliation for the victim. The repeated nature of verbal harassment can make it difficult for the victim to focus on their work and can lead to a decline in job performance and satisfaction.

Non-Verbal Harassment

Non-verbal sexual harassment involves any sexually suggestive gestures, actions, or materials that create an intimidating or offensive work environment. Examples of non-verbal harassment include:

Non-verbal harassment is particularly complicated because it can be more difficult to identify than other forms of harassment. Non-verbal harassment can create a culture of objectification and disrespect, making it challenging for victims to feel safe and valued in their workplace.

Quid Pro Quo Harassment

Quid pro quo harassment is a form of sexual harassment unique to the workplace. It occurs when employment benefits or opportunities are explicitly or implicitly conditioned on the victim's submission to unwelcome sexual advances. In other words, it's a "this for that" situation where the harasser uses their position of authority to pressure the victim into complying with sexual demands.

Examples of quid pro quo harassment may include:

Under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, quid pro quo harassment is illegal, and employers can be held liable for the actions of their agents or representatives in this way. This means that even if the harassment is committed by a supervisor or manager, the employer (the company as a whole) can still be responsible for failing to prevent or address the behavior via background checks, training, or other measures.

Hostile Work Environment

A hostile work environment is created when widespread or severe sexual harassment creates an intimidating, offensive, or hostile atmosphere that interferes with someone's ability to perform their job. Unlike quid pro quo harassment, a hostile work environment can be created by the actions of anyone in the workplace, not just those in positions of authority.

Examples of behaviors that may contribute to a hostile work environment include:

When an employee is subjected to such an environment, they may feel uncomfortable, unsafe, or marginalized, which can negatively impact their work performance and wellbeing. As a whole, hostile work environments are terrible for engagement and tend to decrease morale even with employees who aren’t victims.

To establish a hostile work environment claim, the harassment must be severe or prevalent enough to create an abusive working environment and must be based on protected characteristics like sex or gender. Companies have a legal duty to prevent and address hostile work environments by implementing clear anti-harassment policies, providing training, and promptly investigating and resolving complaints of sexual harassment.

What Are the Side Effects of Sexual Harassment?

Sexual harassment can have serious effects on a person’s wellbeing, ranging from emotional and mental to physical, and even professional areas of life.

Sexual Harassment vs. Sexual Assault – What's the Difference?

Sexual harassment and sexual assault are both serious problems, but they're not the same thing.

Sexual harassment is any unwanted behavior of a sexual nature, like inappropriate comments, touching, or requests for sexual favors. It makes the victim feel uncomfortable or unsafe.

Sexual assault, on the other hand, is a type of sexual harassment that involves physical contact. It can include crimes like rape, attempted rape, fondling, or forcing the victim to perform sexual acts. Examples of sexual assault include:

While all sexual assaults are a form of sexual harassment, not all sexual harassment is sexual assault. However, both are unacceptable and can have serious long-term effects on the victims.

Examples of Sexual Harassment

While the meaning of these terms may be relatively clear, identifying them in the real world can be more difficult. To clarify even further what sexual harassment is, let’s look at a few example scenarios and categorize them:

Scenario 1

Sarah is a new employee at a marketing firm. Her boss, Mark, often comments on her appearance, saying things like "You look good in that dress" or "I bet all the guys in the office are checking you out."

He also stands very close to her when they talk and sometimes touches her shoulder or back. Sarah feels uncomfortable but doesn't say anything because she doesn't want to make a scene or lose her job.

Is This Sexual Harassment?

Yes. This is an example of sexual harassment because Mark's behavior is unwanted, inappropriate, and makes Sarah feel uncomfortable in her workplace.

Scenario 2

David works in a restaurant kitchen. One of his coworkers, Lisa, is always making sexual jokes and comments. She talks about her sex life in graphic detail and asks David invasive questions about his own experiences.

One time, she "accidentally" brushed her hand against his butt when walking past him. David tries to avoid Lisa but can't always do so because they work closely together. He's afraid to report her behavior because he thinks no one will believe him since he's a man being harassed by a woman.

Is This Sexual Harassment?

Yes. This scenario shows that it can happen to anyone, regardless of gender, and that it's a serious issue that should be addressed and reported.

Scenario 3

Gary, a doctor at a local hospital, receives an email from the director of the respiratory department, Jayne, late one evening. The email contains a sexually explicit image and a message saying, "Thought you might enjoy this. Let me know if you want to see more."

Gary is shocked and disturbed by the email but isn't sure how to handle the situation. Since Jayne runs a crucial department in the hospital and is well-liked by the executive team, he feels implicit pressure to ignore the behavior.

Is This Sexual Harassment?

Yes. Sexual harassment can occur through digital communication, such as emails or messages. That means even remote teams aren’t immune from these issues. Sending sexually explicit content to a coworker is inappropriate and creates a hostile work environment, even if it happens outside of work hours.

Scenario 4

Emily, a customer service representative, is frequently contacted by a client named John. During phone calls, John makes suggestive comments about Emily's voice and asks personal questions about her relationship status. He also sends her emails with sexual jokes and memes. Emily reports John's behavior to her supervisor, but they tell her to "just ignore it" because John is an important client.

Is This Sexual Harassment?

Yes. Sexual harassment can even come from individuals outside the organization, such as clients or customers. It also highlights the importance of employers taking all harassment complaints seriously, regardless of the source. Failing to address the issue can create a hostile work environment and make the victim feel unsupported.

Scenario 5

Sarah and Sean both work on the same floor at their company. Occasionally, they pass each other in the halls or during breaks, and they are at least professionally acquainted — even friendly at times. One day in the break room, Sean politely compliments Sarah, saying, “Your hair looks great today.” Sarah says “Thanks!” Sean then politely asks Sarah if she would like to join him for a drink after work so they can get to know each other.

Is This Sexual Harassment?

Not necessarily. Assuming the company has no policy against employee dating, and this is Sean’s first mention of the subject, this would not be considered sexual harassment, even if Sarah denies his request for a date. The key aspect of this interaction is the politeness of Sean’s approach to the situation. If Sean had said these things aggressively, made comments of a sexual nature, or asked Sarah for a date multiple times even after she said “no” — the situation would have more ground to be considered sexual harassment.

That said, “politeness” is hard to define, and reporting the situation as it really happened can be difficult. This is why many companies maintain a policy against employee dating to avoid these complicated scenarios entirely.

What To Do If I Witness Sexual Harassment at Work

As an HR professional (or an employee), if you witness a coworker being sexually harassed, it's important to take action. Here are some steps you can take:

To prevent sexual harassment in the workplace, companies need clear policies and regular training. All employees should know what behavior is considered unacceptable and how to report harassment if it occurs. These policies should be easily accessible, such as in an employee handbook or on the company's intranet.

Legal Framework and Protections

Understanding the legal framework surrounding sexual harassment in the workplace is crucial for both employers and employees. Being familiar with relevant laws and protections helps ensure compliance and upholds the rights of workers.

State and Federal Laws

The primary federal law that prohibits employment discrimination based on sex, including sexual harassment, is Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. This law applies to employers with 15 or more employees and protects workers from harassment by supervisors, coworkers, and even non-employees like clients or customers. Many states also have laws that make sexual harassment training necessary for companies of a certain size.

Some states have additional laws that provide further protections or remedies. For example, California's Fair Employment and Housing Act covers employers with five or more employees and allows victims to file claims directly in court without first going through an administrative agency.

Under these laws, employees have the right to work in an environment free from sexual harassment. They also have the right to take legal action against perpetrators and employers who fail to address harassment.

Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC)

The EEOC is the federal agency responsible for enforcing laws against workplace discrimination, including sexual harassment. If an individual believes they are a victim, they can file a charge with the EEOC.

To file a charge, the individual must provide their name, the name of the employer, and a description of the harassment. They must also file the charge within 180 days of the last incident of harassment (or 300 days in some states with their own anti-discrimination laws).

Once a charge is filed, the EEOC will investigate the complaint and may try to settle the case or file a lawsuit on behalf of the victim.

Importance of Documentation

Documenting instances of sexual harassment is crucial for legal purposes. Victims should keep detailed records of harassing behavior, including:

This documentation can strengthen a victim's case if they decide to file a formal complaint with the EEOC or pursue legal action. It can help prove the existence and severity of the harassment and show that the victim tried to address the problem through the proper channels.

Keeping good records can also be helpful if the harasser or employer tries to retaliate against the victim for reporting the harassment. Retaliation is illegal, and having documentation of the original harassment can help prove that any negative actions taken against the victim were in response to their complaint.

Seeking Legal Advice

If you’ve experienced sexual harassment at work (or you’re dealing with an instance as an HR professional), it's a good idea to talk to an attorney who specializes in employment law. They can help you understand certain employee rights and figure out the best way to handle the situation.

A lawyer can look at the details of the case and give you an idea of its legal strength. They can also explain remedies you might be able to pursue, like money damages or getting a job reinstated post-termination. If you decide to file a complaint with the EEOC or sue your employer, a lawyer can guide you through the process and advocate for you in negotiations or in court. They can also help protect you from retaliation by your employer.

In any case, it's important to remember that employees have rights under both state and federal law, and an attorney can help you understand these rights.

Final Thoughts

Sexual harassment in the workplace can have severe consequences for victims and organizations alike. It’s crucial for both employers and employees to recognize the various forms of sexual harassment and understand how to respond effectively when encountering or witnessing such behavior.

Employers must prioritize preventing and addressing sexual harassment by implementing clear policies, providing comprehensive training, and fostering a culture of respect and accountability. Employees also play a vital role in creating safer and more inclusive work environments by speaking out against harassment, supporting victims, and advocating for positive change.

Criterion can help your company boost employee engagement, ensure compliance, and build a better overall employee experience. Our HCM can also help you develop custom training programs (like those for sexual harassment), administer them, and keep track of which employees are up to date on all training requirements. By taking proactive steps to combat sexual harassment and cultivate a respectful workplace culture, organizations can create an environment where all employees thrive.

Book a demo to discover how Criterion can assist your company in achieving these goals and much more.

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