Sexual Harassment in the Workplace: What Can You Do?

14 September 2019

Although sexual harassment in the workplace is not a new phenomenon, in the age of #MeToo it has become a hotbed of discussion in the workplace, online, and in the media.  

Sexual harassment in the workplace: an overview

Sexual harassment is defined as unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, or verbal or physical contact of a sexual nature, especially when it impacts job performance or creates a hostile work environment. To protect American workers from sexual harassment, the government created Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Sexual harassment is a criminal offense and also considered a form of employee discrimination.

Although most harassment cases are filed by women against men, both victims and perpetrators of sexual harassment can be any gender. The victim may be of the same or opposite sex. Harassers can be any employee or employer at work, including supervisors, managers, or other co-workers or consultants.

Workplace sexual harassment is not about the act of sex itself--it is about the perpetrator asserting control and power over their victim. There are many types of sexual harassment, but some forms include:

  • Attempted or completed rape
  • Unwanted groping or touching
  • Non-contact sexual abuse (verbal or written threats of sexual violence)
  • Any conduct that creates a hostile work environment (i.e., telling inappropriate stories or jokes)
  • Misconduct as a condition for continued employment or for advancement in employment, (i.e., a supervisor telling an employee they will be fired if they don’t comply with their sexual advances, or they will get a promotion or raise if they do comply).

The numbers

According to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), eight in ten women filed sexual harassment charges against men from 2005 to 2015. The other twenty percent of complaints were filed by men. Even with the high numbers of charges filed with the EEOC, only ten percent of people who experience sexual harassment ever report it. Experts state that the reasons for the silence might be a lack of an accessible complaints process, fear of retaliation (such as physical harm or loss of a job), or embarrassment.

While sexual harassment can happen at any workplace, these employee situations rank the highest in harassment and assault: tips jobs, such as wait staff; jobs in isolated settings, like janitors and live-in domestic workers; undocumented workers, especially women; and women in male-dominated jobs such as construction or the armed services.

Stories from the front lines

While many stories of sexual harassment in the workplace go unreported, many employees do find the courage to speak out and share their stories. In doing so, they may help other workers find the courage to speak out about their own issues of harassment at work. Below are real stories from the people who experienced them, but names have been changed to protect the identities of the victims.

  • Hannah, a waitress at a diner, reports that her manager put his arm around her and tried to kiss her when she gave him coffee. The cook at the same diner trapped her in the food cooler and groped her. When Hannah reported this to Human Resources, the men in question were made to watch a sensitivity video, and Hannah got a raise.
  • Jason, an assistant manager at a larger grocery store chain, reported that his female supervisor would make sexual comments, rub her body against his, and would flash her bra or breasts at him. Because nothing was done about his situation, he had to quit because of the manager’s behavior.
  • John suffered same-sex harassment on the oil rig he worked on, where only men worked. Two of his supervisors and a colleague harassed him in the shower and constantly threatened him with rape. John sued the company, claiming his rights entitled to him under Title VII were violated, and he resigned to find a better position.

It is evident when reading anecdotes and reports of sexual harassment that they can happen to anyone, in any employment situation, regardless of gender or sexual orientation.

What you can do if you are sexually harassed at work

Knowing how you can find resources for reporting sexual abuse is helpful if you find yourself in that situation. Here are some steps that may help if you have been harassed or assaulted at work: 

  1. Document. Document all instances of abuse, including threats, derogatory comments, or different treatment due to gender or sexual orientation. Write down the time, date, place, and any witnesses if possible. Also, take note if your harasser is also harassing others in the same way, and keep your notes safe and private. Don’t keep notes at work in your desk, for instance, or on your work computer. Keep the notes with you on your phone, or type them on your home computer.
  2. Gather. If your harasser is sending you emails, texts, notes, etc., keep them for evidence, and print out digital correspondence. Don’t delete them. Take screenshots of texts and social media interactions if you have those.
  3. Report. Find out your company’s policy for reporting sexual harassment, and report it in writing, not verbally. You will need this documentation in case you need to sue because you must report it to your company first so they can try to rectify the situation. If the harasser retaliates after your report, document, and report again. Once you report sexual harassment to your employer, the company is then officially liable to make the harasser stop the behavior.
  4. File. If your company does not take action after you make a report, you can file a complaint with the EEOC. You are protected from retaliation if you make a complaint to the EOC.

If you feel you need further assistance during any part of the process, hire a lawyer, who can bolster your case if your employer won’t take action.

Final Thoughts

Sadly, sexual harassment has always seemed to be a blight on the American workplace. However, with laws in place since the late 20th century, employees have more protection and support to help them through difficult situations of harassment. Learning the laws in your state and the rules at work about sexual harassment can help you navigate this frightening landscape you ever have to face it. Take your power back by educating yourself and speaking up for yourself and others.