Sexual Harassment in Your Workplace: What to Know, and What You Can Do

Workplace sexual harassment⁠ has been in the news in a big way over the last couple of years. But many of the stories we hear are about Hollywood or big corporations, and we often only hear the stories of the most egregious misconduct, not the kinds of comments, “jokes,” or mistreatment that can make us uncomfortable on a daily basis.

If you’re a young worker -- someone who works for a small family business, or waits tables at a restaurant, or lifeguards at a pool over summer break, for example -- it can often be hard to see yourself in those stories.

So, what is sexual harassment likely to look like in your life, or the lives of your friends? And what can you actually do about it, whether you’re the target of it, trying to avoid harming people yourself, or you’re the friend of someone who’s being harassed at work?

Defining our terms

When people hear “ sexual⁠ ” harassment, they often think the behavior has to be related to sexual activity, but that’s only part of it. Sexual harassment has a few different elements:

  • Sexual harassment involves words, conduct, or actions that are sexual in nature, or which are connected to a person or group’s sex⁠ , gender⁠ , gender expression⁠ , sexual orientation⁠ , or any other gender-related characteristic, AND which have the purpose or effect of demeaning, degrading, or distressing another person, unreasonably interfering with someone’s work performance, or contributing to an intimidating, offensive, or hostile work environment. So If your coworker is telling you that you shouldn’t wear a particular type of clothing because it’s too feminine⁠ or masculine⁠ , or if they’re making fun of gay⁠ or trans people, or saying that girls and women don’t belong in a particular profession, AND them doing that makes you feel uncomfortable, unable to focus at work, or like you aren’t welcome in that workplace, it might constitute what we call a “hostile work environment.”
  • Sexual harassment also refers to quid pro quo sexual harassment, which involves the offer of improved treatment or other work-related reward in exchange for engaging in sexual behavior, the threat of poor treatment or work-related consequences for refusing to engage in sexual behavior, and other implicit or explicit work-related sexual coercion. For example: if a boss promises you a raise, says you can get better shifts, or tells you that you can have a job if you engage in sexual conduct with them, or if they say you’ll get fired or they will otherwise treat you badly at work if you don’t do it, then that might be a quid pro quo situation.

The language above is pulled from legal definitions of sexual harassment, and can be pretty vague or difficult to understand. The law, itself, isn’t always very specific about which behaviors constitute sexual harassment, because a lot of it comes down to subjective interpretations of what any given person finds offensive, and how it affects them at work. Check out the chart from Professor Louise Fitzgerald in this article (about ⅔ of the way down the page). She helps break down the types of behaviors we’re talking about, and groups them in ways that help us understand sexual harassment beyond the very specific legal categories.

It’s important to remember that you can be harmed by or be responsible for engaging in sexual or gender-based harassment no matter what your gender is. Straight men might harass straight women, like we see portrayed most often. But a gay man making derogatory or overly sexualized comments about his nonbinary⁠ coworker’s body isn’t okay either. Neither are invasive questions or mockery about a guy’s sexual orientation or preferred sexual activities from his colleagues, or anyone at work asking a woman repeated questions about when she’s planning to get pregnant.

Sexual harassment can happen at your actual place of work, or it can happen outside of work, like when a coworker texts you inappropriate messages, or if you’re traveling for a conference. The person doing the harassing can be your boss or coworker, but it could also be a security guard at the front desk, or a regular customer, or a vendor. Your employer must keep you safe from harassment from anyone that you are required to come into contact with as a result of your work.

While you, a coworker, or a friend may be experiencing sexual harassment from a particular individual or group of individuals, and each of us should strive to treat each other well at work, it’s important to remember that the responsibility for preventing harassment, responding to it when it happens, and preventing it from recurring is ultimately your employer’s responsibility.

What are your employer’s responsibilities?

Once your employer knows about sexual harassment -- or about discrimination of any kind, like on the basis of race, disability, or any other federal, state, or local protected class -- they are generally required to take action to stop it and to prevent it from recurring.

Your employer should have a policy that states that they don’t tolerate harassment or discrimination, and which outlines how you can report it to the company or organization.

It can be scary to report -- you might be worried that someone won’t believe you, or that someone will retaliate and you could lose your job; your boss might be the one engaged in the misconduct -- and your fears are totally understandable and valid. Reporting through official workplace channels definitely isn’t the right solution for everyone, but if you think you can pursue it safely, it can be your best option for getting the behavior to stop. Remember, your employer can’t fix something if they don’t know that it’s a problem. Check out⁠ the section below on what to do if you or someone you know are experiencing harassment for some other ideas and alternatives for how to address it.

Once your employer knows about possible sexual harassment, no matter how they know -- whether because you or someone else told them directly, or someone reported it anonymously, or a supervisor saw it happening, or because your manager overheard people talking about it -- they have to address it. If you know that they know, or should have reason to know, and they don’t adequately address the harassment, then you can talk to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission or your state or local fair employment practices agency, who enforce laws and make sure that employers are following the rules on preventing and responding to harassment and discrimination. You may want to talk with one of these outside agencies if you don’t feel safe pursuing a complaint at work, your employer already knows about the harassment but isn’t adequately addressing it, or if you need additional guidance on your rights or what to do next. These conversations are free, and you don’t need to have a lawyer.

Generally speaking, a private employer has to have 15 or more employees in order to be bound by the laws that the EEOC enforces, but that can vary from state to state, and sometimes based on the type of place you work. Many state and local anti-discrimination laws are stricter than what’s covered under the federal law that the EEOC enforces, so you may be covered under one of those laws or regulations. If you’ve experienced something you think might be sexual harassment, and you want to know what your options are for handling it, check with the EEOC or with your state or local employment agency.

Why does this matter for workers like you?

Sexual harassment exists in nearly every type of work environment, in nearly every industry, from work study programs to summer jobs delivering pizzas to retail work to working in your family friend’s law office.

We know that younger workers are often most vulnerable to sexual harassment. A recent study of high school students working part-time jobs found that 2 in 3 girls and 1 in 3 boys reported experiencing sexual harassment at work. Sixty-one percent of that harassment came from coworkers, 19 percent from supervisors, and 18 percent from customers.

The early jobs you work when you’re in high school or college, or entering the workforce as a young adult, are your first introductions to how to behave at work. This is where you learn what “normal” is. If you’re new to the workforce, you might not have a good understanding yet of acceptable workplace behaviors. That can increase the risk of harassment in that first or second job you hold, and even into the future. Many younger workers don’t feel able to say no to sexual advances that might make them uncomfortable, and don’t feel like they can or know how to report misconduct. And if, in our earliest working experiences, we learn that certain kinds of behaviors are actually acceptable, sometimes we go on to replicate or perpetuate harmful or damaging actions in future work environments. This helps create unhealthy workplace cultures throughout our society, and could result in you being harmed, or in harming others, later in your career.

What should you do if you or a coworker are being harassed?

For sexual harassment to be illegal, it usually needs to be “severe” or “pervasive,” meaning it has to have been either really intensely bad or something that’s happening in an ongoing way.

But just because the harassment might not be illegal does not mean that it’s acceptable. 

If a boss, coworker, customer, or anyone else you have to come into contact with as a result of your work is making you feel uncomfortable, you always have the right to let someone know and get help in making that behavior stop. If you don’t feel able to bring it up with your supervisor, or with their supervisor, try talking to a parent, teacher, or other trusted adult. You can also contact the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, or your state or local equivalent. Another resource is the Young Workers Project of the Labor Occupational Health Program at University of California at Berkeley. They can advise you on next steps to take.

If you are experiencing sexual or gender-based harassment, or you see or hear about it happening to someone else, you have a lot of power and tools available to you to make it stop. Bystander intervention is one of the most effective ways to stop harassment, and to show people who have been harmed by harassment that we have their back.

One option is to directly tell the person to cut it out or that their comments are unwelcome, whether they’re directed at you or at someone else. But less directly, you can also go talk to the person who was harmed by the harassment afterwards and say “hey, I didn’t think what John said earlier was okay. How are you doing? How can I support you in making sure that doesn’t happen again?” Or you can go talk to the person who made the inappropriate comment and tell them that you didn’t think the joke was funny, or that you felt it was really inappropriate, and think they owe someone an apology. You can also just inject yourself into a situation; if you see someone being cornered by a coworker that you know they don’t feel comfortable with, go over and join the conversation. Start talking about the weather, or your plans for that weekend. Something as simple as just being there makes it so the person doing the harassing has to stop, or will walk away, or gives the person who’s being harmed in that moment the ability to get away without it being a big thing. Even if you don’t think you know the right thing to say in any given moment, just being there or responding to a crass joke with a quick “wow, really?” can let someone know their behavior is unacceptable.

Simple steps like these can make a big impact in changing workplace cultures into safer environments for everyone. Our workplace cultures are shaped by the behaviors that we do and do not tolerate. When we intervene, tell someone their behavior is unacceptable, or support people in objecting to harassment, discrimination, or mistreatment, we are actively shaping the norms of what is okay and what is not in our environments.

And always remember -- the harassment doesn’t have to be directed at you for it to affect you. If someone’s behavior at work is making you uncomfortable, even if the comment or sexual advances they made were targeted at your coworker or a customer, you still have every right to object to it.

While you can take actions to respond or intervene, ultimately it’s your employer’s responsibility to create and maintain a work environment that is free from harassment and discrimination. Ask your employer if they have a policy in place, and make sure that it’s been distributed to and reviewed with all employees. If they haven’t already, and even if it’s not required by state or local laws, your employer should provide training to all employees on what sexual harassment is, what their policies are, and how to report if someone needs to. Your employer should go beyond the bare minimum for avoiding legal liability to make sure that everyone is safe and supported at work, and if you feel comfortable talking with them about it, you have every right to ask them to do that.

For a list of ways employers can create safer, harassment-free workplaces, click here.

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  • Jocelyn Anderson

I know that isn’t news to anyone, but I think we forget that sometimes when trying to help our friends or family members who are going through it. We expect them to act “rationally,” like we would, or like we want them to.

But sexual assault is traumatic, and making decisions during and after trauma is complicated. Decisions about who to talk to - the police, a healthcare provider, a friend, a teacher - can feel incredibly complicated. Are they going to believe me? Are they going to listen to me? Are they going to call the police even though I don’t want that? What is going to happen next?