The Truth About Sexual Harassment in the Workplace Everyone Needs to Know

Free Online Recruiting SystemRecent events have made it painfully obvious that despite decades of work, sexual harassment in the workplace is still too great a problem. Let’s explore why that is and what can be done about it. Recruiteze is the number one free online recruiting system for small and medium sized business. Want a free trial? Get started by clicking here.

What Is Sexual Harassment on the Job?

The first step to addressing sexual harassment on the job is to understand it.

“The U.S. Equal Opportunity Employment Commission (EEOC) defines workplace sexual harassment as unwelcome sexual advances or conduct of a sexual nature which unreasonably interferes with the performance of a person’s job or creates an intimidating, hostile, or offensive work environment. Sexual harassment can range from persistent offensive sexual jokes to inappropriate touching to posting offensive material on a bulletin board. Sexual harassment at work is a serious problem and can happen to both women and men.”

Sexual harassment is broken up into two recognized types: quid pro quo and hostile work environment.

Quid Pro Quo

As the term implies, quid pro quo sexual harassment occurs when someone in authority makes the acceptance of sexual harassment a necessary cost of getting or keeping their job or a benefit. It may take the form of requests for favors or an obvious or implied threat.

Hostile Work Environment

A hostile work environment is one in which a person’s safety, productivity, and/or advancement is impeded because of discrimination of some kind. For the sake of this article, we’re discussing sexual harassment.

Before leaving this subject, it is important to point out the distinction made in the last paragraph as it will come up again later in this post. A hostile work environment and sexual harassment are both issues of discrimination. Sexual harassment is not flirting, funny, or just about sex.

The Legal Aspect

Sexual harassment of either of the two kinds mentioned above is a serious, punishable issue that will be dealt with by the government. In order to be actionable by the EEOC and the legal system, there will have to be proof that:

  • the conduct was, as the EEOC puts it, “hostile, abusive, or offensive”
  • employment was affected by the action(s)

Just one instance is enough to act on a claim of quid pro quo harassment, while a pattern must usually be shown to warrant action for a hostile work environment claim.

Sexual Harassment Is Not Always What You Expect

As the EEOC pointed out in the quote above, sexual harassment can happen to women and men. It also occurs between both opposite and same sex persons. The harasser does not have to be in a position of authority with a victim “below” them. Sometimes customers or employees harass management or management harasses fellow management.

Harassers can be supervisors, an agent of the employer, a coworker, or a customer. Employers can be held accountable for all of these instances if they know about it and do not act.

Victims of harassment include people who are not directly harassed. Fellow employees are often all affected by harassing behaviors, particularly if they fit the same group as the victim. For instance, a woman may simply overhear a female colleague being harassed and feel fear and shame that could impact her work.

Harassment, even legally actionable harassment, is not confined to actions that lead to discharge or “economic injury.”

Harassment is often done in the guise of humor or friendliness. Smiles, laughter, and excuses that “it was a compliment,” do not negate the legitimacy of the offense.

The victim does not have to prove physical evidence or even claim physical contact for a harassment case. Most harassment causes emotional injuries, and no physical contact is needed.

What to Do If You’ve Been Sexually Harassed at Work

The very first thing to do if you are sexually harassed is to try to stop it yourself by clearly rejecting proposals and requests and telling the harasser that you are offended by their behavior.

Number one, it is effective for temporarily ending or curbing most harassment. The harasser may not be aware that their conduct constitutes harassment, and even those who do are often be scared off by resistance.

Secondly, it will help you prove your case. A crucial component of a sexual harassment case is that the action was unwanted, so the more obvious you can make it that you didn’t want it, the easier that portion of the case will be to prove.

This need to prove the injury and the implication that you may “want” what the person did sounds insulting, but it is necessary because some people choose to engage in wanted sexual conversations, flirting, and similar exchanges in the workplace that complicate matters.

Showing immediate offense is excellent, when possible. The next best step is to speak to or write a letter or email to the harasser telling them you are offended by their behavior. If you are afraid of the person, you should tell a supervisor before or at the same time you confront them.

Document everything:

  • copy any letters and emails
  • send emails from the company email address, if relevant
  • write down the date, time, and location of the first and every instance, as closely as you can (the closer and more detailed the better)
  • Include everyone involved, even onlookers
  • write down the details of what was done as clearly, thoroughly, and accurately as possible
  • include steps you took to address the situation
  • describe the harasser’s reaction

Go Through Company Policy First

free online recruiting systemEach company should have a policy made readily available to each employee on sexual harassment. Gain access to it, even if you must ask someone for it, and follow its instructions closely.

Document the actions you take to follow their instructions and any action or lack of action taken by your supervisors. If one person lets you down, move up the chain of command until someone resolves the problem, or you reach the end of the line.

Retaliation Is Illegal

Do not be afraid of retaliation. Not because it doesn’t happen, unfortunately, but because it isn’t tolerated, if you report it. Reporting it, even when it gets difficult, is crucial to someone being able to help. So, keep talking.

To protect yourself from retaliation, ask for a copy of your personnel file before you file your complaint. This way, if they demote, transfer, or fire you, you will already have proof of your record, so they can’t wrongfully claim you did something wrong to justify the action.

Consider your decision to quit very carefully. If you can by any stretch remain in the job, do so, because quitting can limit how actionable your lawsuit will be. If you voluntarily quit, it may not be possible to repair some damages.

If the Company Fails You, Contact the EEOC

If notifying supervisors and following the company’s policy doesn’t help, you should contact the EEOC. The details of how to do that can be found here.

Make yourself aware of federal and state statute of limitations to file your claim within the actionable time frame. Check your state policies on sexual harassment also to ensure you don’t skip a step through that route.

When you file a claim with the EEOC, they will investigate the claim and take steps to resolve the issues with the employer. If the employer won’t comply and the EEOC has determined that your complaint is valid, they will issue you a letter stating your “right to sue.” You can then use this letter to start a civil lawsuit against the company.

Actions Taken When You Win a Sexual Harassment Lawsuit

No matter how hopeless you may feel because of harassment, do not act because you believe nobody will care or nothing will be done.

When you win a sexual harassment lawsuit, states that you may see one or more of the following(depending on the case):

  • Reinstatement, if you lost your job
  • back pay (multiplied by three times) if you lost money or missed out on a raise
  • Fringe benefits lost
  • Damages for emotional distress
  • A requirement that your employer initiate policies or training to stop harassment
  • Your attorney’s fees and court costs

While you might like for the person to be fired, and expect them to be,  that doesn’t always happen and isn’t always enforceable. What the company does have to do is take actions to limit that person’s ability to harass you or someone else and improve their policies to prevent and address sexual harassment. Firing may occur in some situations when the offense is dire or persistent enough to seem uncontrollable.

Educate Yourself

It is also important to educate yourself to prevent harassment and be prepared to handle if it does happen. While companies are obligated to provide training and most have formal sexual harassment policies, that doesn’t mean it is as effective as it could be.

Make yourself aware of what constitutes sexual harassment, seek out your company’s policy (as it isn’t always readily available or even in existence) and keep a copy, and learn the laws in your state ahead of time.

Mentally prepare yourself to act to show offense in the event of sexual harassment. It should make it some easier to overcome the shock and fear that hinders us from acting as quickly and firmly as we would like.

How a Company Should Prevent and Handle Sexual Harassment

free online recruiting systemFirst, accept that your sexual harassment policies are poor, at worst, and need work, at best. Even the best sexual harassment policy is going to need work because they must be fluid, they must involve active participation by all involved, and nothing is ever as good as it can be.

Dedication to work on sexual harassment has been ongoing for decades, but sexual harassment continues to go on. Clearly the efforts haven’t been good enough. The number one reason is because businesses rest on their laurels. They start out strong and then become complacent.

In a previous post, we pointed out Netlight for their gender equality initiatives. They are appearing in this post because they represent that fearful moment when a company comes to realize they are an example of exactly the opposite of what they thought they were.

In 2012, Alice Marshall was lecturing on gender equality,

“The first time I heard the company name in November 2012, I was lecturing at KTH, for the women’s network, on Gender equality in IT. Afterward, I asked the students what they thought of tech as an industry. One of the students raised her hand and said that she thought it was terrible. She proceeded to tell a story where she went to a networking mingle at a company, walked in and it was a bunch of men drinking beer. No one said hello or introduced themselves to her. She said she walked in and walked out. One of the other women asked which company it was, and she said, ‘Netlight.’”

Marshall then tells about Netlight’s response,

“Netlight heard about this and was understandably upset. I got a concerned phone call from their recruiter, who wanted to know why I was spreading rumors that they weren’t good at gender equality. I set up a meeting to talk to Netlight about gender equality, and they explained to me how dismayed they were at this story, since they had been working internally with gender equality for some time.”

Netlight then set out to ensure they really were a good example of gender equality and in 2015 were able to boast significant benefits to women in their company and their own profits.

Their CEO, Erik Ringertz, gave these bits of insight:

“(We measure equality statistics) monthly, because we measure everything else monthly anyway. We’re not treating this separately. It’s integrated into our monthly reports for recruiting and retention. We need to constantly ask the hard questions: ‘ok, this quarter, there were so many women who quit Netlight. This is not a normal number, how come?’ So, then we need to go down and investigate, then we find something out, then we change.”

Again, while he was discussing gender equality rather than sexual harassment, Ringertz’ insights very much apply to how people should approach sexual harassment policies.

Important Steps for a Company’s Sexual Harassment Policies

  • Train executives and managers on sexual harassment policies, at hire and ongoing
  • Work sexual harassment prevention into corporate culture
  • Conduct surveys on current employees
  • Conduct exit interviews
  • Make sexual harassment policy literature easy to access
  • Give victims a welcoming environment to report harassment
  • Monitor reports of harassment and act on them
  • Measure effectiveness of your policy by harassment reports, surveys, and interviews
  • Continue to raise the bar on your sexual harassment policy goals

Sexual Harassment Training

free online recruiting systemSexual harassment training is a crucial part of the attempts by companies and the government to stop sexual harassment but, unfortunately, it isn’t good enough.

Training without enforcement in company culture is worthless. Think about it; you don’t watch training videos every day, but you do live and breathe the company culture. If company culture allows harassment, even breeds a hostile work environment, what is a training video going to do to stop that?

Poorly created sexual harassment training programs sometimes actually make sexual harassment worse. People may not have a clear grasp from the programs of what constitutes sexual harassment and may become overly cautious around each other, leading to other gender diversity issues. Some training programs foster more bad feelings, and women may feel more like victims and men may build more anger toward women which inspires the harassment. discusses how modern sexual harassment videos have failed because they make sexual harassment look like a social faux pax rather than the serious deeper issue of discrimination in general. Discrimination is the real issue, and it is in exploring that topic that we can get viewers to truly understand and implement the complexity of anti-harassment tactics.

Kim Elsesser wrote the following piece for the LA Times:

“(Training) has been too focused on limiting legal liability rather than on reducing bad behavior. Although psychologists have spent years researching how to influence human behavior and attitudes, their knowledge hasn’t been much tapped.

In addition to shaping training to reduce the incidence of harassment rather than just lawsuits, employees need to be educated on the importance of including all coworkers in their social circles. They should be assured that inviting a colleague to lunch is not sexual harassment, and encouraged to socialize with both sexes.

I can hear the objections now: Women can’t have it both ways. They can’t tell men to be cautious around them, and then complain that they feel left out because men are behaving too cautiously.

But I believe we can have it both ways. Men and women can maintain appropriate boundaries at work and develop professional friendships and mentor relationships. It’s the only way women will reach parity with men in the workplace.”

Law and sociology Professor Laura Edelman told The Economist that, “Mediated conversations between small groups of men and women could help forge consensus about what constitutes sexual harassment.”

Both approaches require dialogue, input from victims, and collaboration.

Providing a Safe Environment for Reporting Sexual Harassment

Reporting sexual harassment is not a given. Company owners, managers, and HR cannot assume that no news is good news.

Chai Feldblum, commissioner of the EEOC told NPR that, “Seventy percent of employees who experience harassment in the workplace never even report internally. They never even go to a supervisor.”

There are as many reasons why victims do not come forward as there are employees in your business.

They may fear:

  • There isn’t enough evidence
  • They will be blamed
  • The harasser or a supervisor will threaten them or make life more miserable for them
  • They will get “a reputation”
  • Their career growth will be threatened
  • No one will care or do anything
  • They aren’t sure it is severe enough to get the person in trouble or put themselves through the pain of reporting it

This isn’t okay. You may notice that all of these reasons involve fear, shame, or guilt. This is a result of the harassment; being harassed makes the victim feel fear, shame, and guilt. They feel powerless.

The fact that is going on in your company and you don’t know about it is hurting your company. How is an employee supposed to be happy, productive, or even safe in these conditions?

Feldblum pointed out, “It’s so important for employers to know that individual supervisors – first-line supervisors – need to be trained about what to do. Our training tries to convey that supervisors should see a complaint as a gift. A supervisor is going to have a tendency when he or she hears a complaint of harassment to say, oh, no, I can’t believe I have to deal with this. Instead, they have to realize that this gives them a chance to stop something before it gets worse.”

Make sure your sexual harassment policy, including the procedures for reporting harassment is detailed and easily accessible. Hand it out to all employees at all levels and hang it up in the break room. Make sure that if for some reason they lose it and it is no longer hanging in the break room or lounge, they can have a new copy at any time.

As mentioned above, conduct surveys. Watch for clues. You may notice that an employee routinely avoids another or acts unusually distant or reserved around them. Most importantly, work anti-harassment policies into the corporate culture. Victims will be more likely to believe their complaints will be taken seriously when they see that it is a serious and intolerable matter in day-to-day operations.

Eliminate Retaliation

Feldblum shared, “Based on the research, people who did report – almost 50 percent of them experienced some form of retaliation. That’s horrific. If, in a workplace, other employees see that someone who complained was retaliated against, that is a sure-fire way to make sure that others will not report.”

Part of your company culture must be to train all supervisors in anti-harassment measures and to investigate each report of harassment even beyond when supervisors have acted on it. You must ensure that supervisors took the appropriate action and that real progress has been made within your company to make harassment less likely. This goes back to what Ringertz at Netlight said about gender diversity, keep setting goals for yourself and routinely monitor to make sure they are being reached.


Current sexual harassment tactics are failing us. Companies become complacent about their sexual harassment policies, believing they are achieving enough with a training program. No sexual harassment policy is good enough if it doesn’t grow and isn’t monitored. Furthermore, the most effective action companies can take to prevent and address sexual harassment in the workplace is to listen to the victims.

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