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What Is Considered Sexual Harassment at Work?

Sexual harassment takes many forms in the workplace. In 2016, the EOCC reported that up to 75% of employees who experience sexual harassment at work do not report it to management. 

While underreporting may be due to fear of retaliation, some employees are simply unsure of what constitutes illegal harassment.

In many cases, sexual harassment is as subtle as uninvited sexually charged comments or invitations to formal meetings that quickly turn into dates without consent. It may also happen through email or social media.

What Is Sexual Harassment?

Every workplace is defined by professionalism. However, office spaces have shifted over the years from small cubicles into openly accessible spaces where employees can interact more freely.

With this freedom, sexual harassment is also a growing concern. However, many companies and institutions, inspired by the #metoo movement, have become more vocal about preventing unethical sexual behavior at work.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission defines sexual harassment as unwelcome requests for sexual favors, sexual advances, or physical and verbal conduct that is of a sexual nature. 

When this behavior affects an individual’s employment or performance or creates an offensive or hostile work environment, it may even be considered sexual discrimination.

The Civil Rights Act Title VII states that sexual harassment is illegal and applies to institutions with 15+ employees. It outlaws:

  • Quid Pro Quo Harassment: This is when a supervisor requests sexual favors in exchange for tangible job actions. For instance, a manager or supervisor may say, “I’ll fire you if you do not go out with me.” or “The promotion is yours if you agree to sleep with me.”
  • Hostile Work Environment: In this case, an employee or subordinate is subjected to intimidating or humiliating conditions at work. This may include severe verbal and physical sexual conduct that alters their working environment. A hostile work environment is also the most difficult to detect.

Victims of sexual harassment can file a lawsuit against the liable parties to seek compensation for emotional and physical damages.

Types of Sexual Harassment

Unwanted touching, such as butt slapping, sexually explicit comments, catcalling, ogling, or kissing, can be considered overt sexual harassment. However, there are more subtle forms, such as:

  • Repeated compliments about an employee’s body
  • An individual discussing their sex life in front of an employee.
  • Asking an employee about their sex life
  • Sexual jokes
  • Repeated hugs or placing hands on an employee’s back.
  • Spreading sexual rumors about a specific employee
  • Sexually suggestive gifts, emails, or texts
  • Sending nude photos of men and women

If the conduct is offensive to an employee, or a reasonable person under the same conditions, it is considered a hostile work environment. 

For instance, if a colleague complements another employee’s hair and opens a door for them, it may not be considered sexual harassment.

However, if a supervisor or manager asks a subordinate to meet after work to discuss official matters but then asks them personal questions about their sexual or dating history, it may be considered sexual harassment.

Sexual harassment can also be divided into different categories, such as:

Verbal Sexual Harassment

Verbal behavior, such as inappropriate comments about an employee’s body, their sex life, or inappropriate sexual jokes, may be considered verbal sexual harassment. For instance:

  • Sexual comments touching on an employee’s clothes, complexion, hair, or physique.
  • Whistling or catcalling an employee
  • Calling an adult unprofessional terms of endearment such as stud, girl, sugar, honey, hunk, or others
  • Sexual innuendos and comments
  • Asking about an employee’s sexual preferences, history, or fantasies
  • Sexual stories
  • Steering work conversations toward sexual topics
  • Kissing sounds

Digital Sexual Harassment

The internet and digital communication platforms have made work easier. However, they can quickly become an avenue for sexual harassment if employees rely on them for close communication.

For instance, employees can use digital media to send links to sexually suggestive images, websites, and videos. Some of these may be considered sexually charged jokes, while others are full-blown pornographic material.

Using social media to repeatedly ask out an uninterested employee or spread lies about their sexual life is also considered sexual harassment. Digital sexual harassment can also get complicated due to the ability to create anonymous accounts.

However, verbal sexual harassment guidelines also apply to digital communication. Employees can also sue liable parties for sexual harassment through digital channels.

Non-Verbal Sexual Harassment

Non-verbal sexual harassment constitutes any behavior, sexual in nature, that causes an employee to feel uncomfortable. This may include:

  • Personal gifts
  • Staring
  • Looking at an individual up and down
  • Facial expressions such as winking, lip licking, or blowing kisses.
  • Blocking an individual’s path
  • Following a person
  • Sexually suggestive visuals
  • Sexual messages or pictures
  • Sexual gestures and body movements
  • Suggestively touching oneself
  • Removing clothing in front of an employee

Physical Sexual Harassment

Unwanted physical contact may potentially be viewed as sexual harassment. However, handshakes, light taps, and high-fives may not be considered sexual harassment, even if they are unwelcome.

Physical sexual harassment can include:

  • Hugs
  • Massages
  • Pinching
  • Violating an employee’s personal space
  • Physical contact without a valid non-sexual intent

In some cases, physical harassment can quickly escalate into sexual assault. This is defined as forced contact without consent, such as forced touching, fondling, and rape. 

In case of sexual assault, we recommend immediate medical attention, contacting the police, and notifying the employer. Victims should also seek help for any mental trauma resulting from the assault.

Sexual Harassment Outside Work

Sexual harassment can also happen outside of work if it involves colleagues. For instance, if you are out with coworkers after work, a colleague may be sexually harassed and suffer a hostile work environment at work the following day.

If you work off-site, you can also be sexually harassed by clients, contractors, vendors, customers, and other people you interact with who are not your colleagues. 

Even if sexual harassment occurs outside of work, always report it immediately to a supervisor, manager, or the human resources department.

What Should I Do Following Sexual Harassment at Work?

Even if you do not think it is a serious case of sexual harassment, there are steps you should take to ensure the incident is reported to the appropriate departments.

Report to HR

If you have experienced sexual harassment, the first step is to report it to the human resources department. This ensures the company knows about the incident and keeps a record. HR or management may also investigate the matter and discipline the harasser.

Even if the company does not follow up, reporting to HR ensures that you followed the right protocols and makes it difficult for the harasser’s insurance company to deny or limit your settlement.

Keep a Record

Write down all the important details such as the date, location, time, names of people involved and witnesses, and a simple description. 

Keeping a record allows you to remember and give accurate statements weeks or months after the incident. It is not easy for a victim to speak up about the sexual harassment he/she experienced hence, the Adult Survivors Act is created which allows the victim to have the space they needed and gives the victim the chance to claim proper compensation for their suffering.

Contact an Appropriate Government Agency or the EEOC

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and other government agencies step in when your employer has failed to take any action. If you have a valid complaint, any of the agencies can issue a Notice of Right to Sue, which allows you to file a lawsuit within 90 days.


Sexual harassment is a traumatic experience and dealing with the harasser can lead to even more emotional distress. Although the process can be complicated, a sexual harassment lawyer can help you pursue fair compensation for damages.

In most cases, the harasser’s insurance will have plenty of resources to combat your claim. However, an experienced attorney can help you prove liability. 

Most attorneys in this field have the resources and connections that allow them to collect vital evidence on your behalf to prove your claim.

If you have been sexually harassed at work, get in touch with an experienced sexual harassment attorney to get a free consultation and secure a fair settlement.

Disclaimer: The information in this article is provided for general education and informational purposes only, without any express or implied warranty of any kind, including warranties of accuracy, completeness or fitness for any particular purpose. It is not intended to be and does not constitute financial, legal, tax or any other advice specific to you the user or anyone else. TurtleVerse does not guarantee the accuracy, completeness, or reliability of the information and shall not be held responsible for any action taken based on the published information.



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