Sexual harassment describes unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, or other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature. Sexual harassment in the workplace violates Title VII, a federal law that prohibits discrimination in employment on the basis of sex, race, color, national origin and religion, and applies to employers with 15 or more employees, including federal, state and local governments.
Experiencing harassment at work can be frightening and overwhelming. Sexual harassment could mean that an employment decision, such as a promotion, is based on submission to sexual advances. Sexual harassment can also mean am intimidating, hostile or offensive work environment, which could interfere with work performance.
Sexual harassment includes:
- Unwanted jokes, gestures, offensive words on clothing, and unwelcome comments and repartee that is sexual in nature.
- Touching and any other bodily contact such as scratching or patting a coworker’s back, grabbing an employee around the waist, kissing an employee, hugging an employee or interfering with an employee’s ability to move.
- Repeated requests for dates or other get-togethers that are turned down or unwanted flirting.
- Transmitting or posting emails or pictures of a sexual or other harassment-related nature.
- Watching pornography or other suggestive material online or on smartphones even if the employee is watching in a private office.
- Displaying sexually suggestive objects, pictures or posters in the workplace.
Statistics on workplace sexual harassment from the National Women’s Law Center:
- Surveys indicate that at least one quarter of all women have experienced workplace sexual harassment.
- In federal fiscal year 2015, almost one-third of all charges filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission EEOC involved harassment, and nearly a quarter of those harassment charges involved sexual harassment.
- No occupation is immune from sexual harassment, but the incidence of harassment is higher in workplaces that have traditionally excluded women, including both blue-collar jobs like construction, and white-collar jobs like medicine and science.
- Women working in industries with a high proportion of low-wage jobs, such as food service and agriculture, also report high incidences of sexual harassment.
- Few victims of harassment formally make a complaint to their employers or file a charge with fair employment agencies. According to surveys, 70% to close to 90% do not file a complaint to their employers against their harassers.
Victims of sexual harassment in the workplace do have options, which could include:
1. Consulting the employee handbook or policies and following the sexual harassment policy in place, if it exists. Putting complaints in writing. Taking immediate notes on the harassment and being specific in the details — note the time and place of each incident, what was said and done, and who witnessed the actions. Nothing is too small or trivial.
2. If safe, telling the supervisor about the behavior and the steps taken to address it. Reporting the behavior to the human resources department or the person responsible for workplace investigations/complaints.
3. Confiding in family, friends and even coworkers. Experiencing sexual harassment is traumatic, and a support system is important.
4. Contacting the EEOC, the federal agency charged with enforcing many antidiscrimination laws. Speaking to an EEOC counselor for insight and resources. Filing a discrimination complaint with the EEOC. There is no need for an attorney to file a claim, but the complaint must be filed 180 days from the date of the discriminatory activity.
- American Association of University Women’s Guide to Sexual Harassment in the Workplace https://www.aauw.org/what-we-do/legal-resources/know-your-rights-at-work/workplace-sexual-harassment/
- U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission Sexual Harassment website https://www.eeoc.gov/laws/types/sexual_harassment.cfm
- National Women’s Law Center Fact Sheets about Sexual Harassment https://nwlc.org/resources/sexual-harassment-in-the-workplace/