Defining Sexual Harassment

Sexual Harassment in the Workplace—What You Need to Know

Sexual Harassment Is…

  • Sexual harassment is a form of illegal sex discrimination that violates federal and state law. Title VII of the federal Civil Rights Act applies to employers with 15 or more employees; similar state laws can apply to employers with as few as two employees. So more likely than not, your employer is covered.
  • It can include propositioning a coworker for sex, sexualizing them by inappropriately commenting on their appearance, telling offensive jokes or sharing pornographic images, or degrading a person’s gender in general. It is words or conduct that is unrelated and unproductive in the workplace that negatively impacts one or more coworkers.  
  • There are two common forms of sexual harassment: Quid Pro Quo and Hostile Work Environment. You can read more details on the EEOC website
  • Quid Pro Quois when a supervisor offers something to or threatens an employee in exchange for sex. This is illegal and wrong even if the employee acquiesces.
  • Hostile Work Environmentis when unwelcome sexual advances and/or verbal or physical conduct affects a person’s employment by interfering with their ability to do their job or by creating an intimidating, hostile, or offensive work environment.
  • Around 15% of EEOC sexual harassment complaints are filed by men. Victims and harassers can be men or women, and victim-harasser do not have to be of the opposite sex.
  • Not Just Supervisor-Employee.Illegal sexual harassment can be committed by a supervisor, agent, coworker, someone else within the company, or even a non-employee. A victim does not even have to be the person harassed, but can be a witness or other employee affected by the offensive conduct.

If I’m not being harassed, why should it matter to me?

If you haven’t experienced these types of behaviors, chances are someone close to you has be subjected to them.  A new study from Stop Street Harassment shows 81% of women and 43% of men have experienced some sort of harassment or assault in their lives.  Press Forward hopes in today’s world, eyes have been opened and everyone has an opportunity to be an ally in these situations and can work together to improve their  company’s workplace culture.  But there are economic reasons as well.

The last major study of the financial burden of sexual harassment in the workplace dates to 1988. In it, researchers found that the average Fortune 500 company was losing $6.7 MILLION each year because of sexual harassment in the workplace. Lowered productivity, higher turnover, and absences add up to the $6.7 figure; it does not even include legal costs, settlements, or jury awards. These numbers also do not consider the emotional and physical toll sexual harassment takes on victims. Studies show that sexual harassment early in a person’s career can have a long-term depressive effect on mental health.

So why does sexual harassment still happen?

Sexual harassment is already illegal, and it’s very likely your company has a policy in place. So why does this keep happening? Two reasons: victims don’t know that what is being done to them is illegal (lack of awareness) or they believe that reporting will hurt their career (toxic culture).

Lack of awareness—If your company holds Title VII or sexual harassment training, pay attention! This is not a time to catch up on sleep, but an opportunity to learn about your rights. If your company does not hold training, suggest to HR or your supervisor that they do.  (There is evidence that these trainings are not always effective in their current form, but Press Forward is working to change that.) But a little refresher on federal law, state law, and your company’s policy can still go a long way. In the meantime, you can read about your rights,  what constitutes harassment, and our guide on what to do next. 

Toxic Culture—If you report sexual harassment, you are legally protected from retaliation, including termination.  Employers are required to have adequate reporting mechanisms and to investigate all complaints.  Please check out our guide on what to do if you’re being harassed for more information on filing complaints.

Press Forward Advisor Gretchen Carlson’s book Be Fierce: Stop Harassment and Take Your Power Back, acknowledges that “by the time sexual harassment is a reality in a company, there are signs that other things have already gone off the rails.”  If a company has allowed this behavior to permeate their culture, there is much work to be done to improve their culture.  Carlson writes, “true workplace change starts with a top-down commitment to equality and a positive workplace culture.”  Press Forward is committed to finding concrete solutions to remedy these workplace culture problems to eradicate these behaviors.