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Workplace sexual harassment: what it is and how to combat it


Growing public conversations around workplace sexual harassment highlight a harrowing reality: It’s both widespread and frequently mishandled.

As an employer, you have an opportunity to learn from the collective concern about this sensitive topic and use what you’ve learned to create a healthier and safer workplace.

Even if this is an issue you’ve faced on the job in the past, it’s helpful to look at this topic using three essential questions to guide further exploration:

  • What constitutes sexual harassment?
  • How do you discern the difference between harassment and conduct that is merely inappropriate?
  • And how can you work to prevent it in the first place?

Keeping those foundational questions in mind, here are the basics about workplace sexual harassment – and what you can do to protect your employees and your business from its damaging effects.

Defining workplace sexual harassment

Workplace sexual harassment is a complicated, evolving topic with equally thorny definitions. Rules and regulations about it vary by location, too.

As for the federal government’s take on it, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) maintains a highly detailed explanation of the concept online explaining how the behavior is tied to Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Sexual harassment can take many forms, and often it coincides with other types of on-the-job harassment and discrimination.

Some cases are physical, involving touching or quid pro quo dynamics (e.g., a workplace benefit is offered in exchange for a sexual act).

However, sexual harassment can also be entirely verbal (e.g., jokes of a sexual nature) or non-verbal (e.g., staring or sexual gestures).

Remember: The conduct doesn’t have to be so extreme that it shocks one’s conscience to be considered sexual harassment. It can be far more subtle while remaining painful and illegal.

Sexual harassment versus inappropriate conduct

According to the EEOC, harassment becomes unlawful when the conduct is severe or pervasive enough to create an intimidating, hostile or abusive work environment.

So, for actions that are inappropriate, but not severe, pervasiveness becomes a key way to evaluate whether the conduct requires discipline – along with a thorough understanding of the nature of the conduct and the context in which it occurred.

Looking at questionable workplace behavior through the lens of its severity and pervasiveness can help you determine if it constitutes sexual harassment.

Below are some examples of possible workplace sexual harassment evaluated through this framework. To give you deeper insights, they’re presented in a way that an EEOC investigator might approach each type of situation.

A frequent, offensive comment of a sexual nature

In evaluating a report of this type, an EEOC investigator may first ask: How pervasive is it? Is it happening all the time?

Signs that the comment may be pervasive enough to create a hostile work environment include:

  • The same comment is being repeated in different contexts.
  • The employee hears jokes or little comments about it daily.
  • The employee worries about hearing it again every time he or she goes to the office.

The facts of each case are different, of course. Yet, generally speaking, this behavior may be considered unlawful sexual harassment.

A single, egregious touch

If a touch happens only once – say a brush against a bare arm – the behavior is not problematic. However, if the action is highly inappropriate (e.g., involving an employee’s private area), the first occurrence alone likely requires disciplinary action.

So, even a single incident of misconduct may be considered unlawful sexual harassment.

An unwelcome, non-sexual touch

Let’s go back to the single, non-sexual touch example. Maybe a hand was put on an employee’s back or shoulder in the wrong context, making that person feel uncomfortable.

Typically, this behavior is considered a less severe act. One instance isn’t necessarily pervasive enough to create a hostile work environment. Thus, this kind of incident may not constitute unlawful sexual harassment.

If the employee feels comfortable, he or she can tell the offending coworker that all touching is unwelcome.

If the behavior were to continue after the employee expresses discomfort, however, it could become pervasive enough to create a hostile work environment and require discipline.

The costs of sexual harassment in the workplace

It goes without saying that victims bear the greatest costs when it comes to sexual harassment on the job. It negatively affects employees’ mental and physical health, their finances and opportunities to advance in their careers, according to The Institute for Women’s Policy Research (IWPR).

Organizations, too, can pay a hefty price.

For employers, costs from workplace sexual harassment may include:

3 ways to prevent workplace sexual harassment

Prevention is the best way to combat sexual harassment in the workplace and defend employees and the business against its costs.

Below are three appropriate strategies to keep this type misconduct out of your organization.

1. Communicate formally that sexual harassment will not be tolerated

In your employee handbook, be sure to include clear sexual harassment language, which is usually part of a wider anti-harassment policy. This information should reflect all relevant federal, state and local laws.

It’s best practice for this portion of your policy to:

  • Define sexual harassment
  • Communicate any prevention training requirements
  • Explain how to file complaints and how to follow your investigation process
  • Encourage (but not require) employees to inform the harasser directly that the conduct is unwelcome and must stop
  • Indicate that all supervisors are responsible for:
    • Doing all they can to prevent and discourage workplace sexual harassment from occurring
    • Taking immediate action when employees make complaints

Writing these expectations in your handbook codifies that sexual harassment will not be tolerated. It also makes clear to all parties that, if it does occur, you have established complaint and investigation procedures to guide both employees and supervisors.

2. Provide sexual harassment prevention training

Again, it’s smart to be aware of any regulations governing sexual harassment training in your state and to comply with them as a baseline.  

For example, California employers must provide at least two hours of sexual harassment training to supervisors and at least one hour of training to all other employees.

Even if such requirements aren’t made of your company, it’s wise to offer training and support on top of the minimum expected to actively prevent workplace sexual harassment.

Thorough harassment prevention training plans ensure the entire workforce clearly understands what constitutes sexual harassment and how to file complaints. EEO training for supervisors is especially important since they are typically the ones who receive and process complaints.

3. Keep apprised of changes in the law

Moving forward from addressing the current expectations of employers, it’s important that you have a mechanism in place to alert you of any changes in sexual harassment laws, whether that’s through your internal human resources (HR) staff or through an outside HR consulting service.

Sexual harassment is a preeminent issue right now in our world. As the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements continue, people will likely continue to speak out online and in conversations about the workplace sexual harassment that they’ve witnessed or personally experienced.

In the wake of these discussions, the public expects more of businesses, business owners and company leaders to help put an end to workplace harassment.

As an employer, you need to take this reality very seriously, understanding how the growing anti-harassment social movement affects your employees and how it might affect your own policies and procedures going forward.

Protecting your employees and your business

Rather than seeing these workplace issues and legal expectations as a burden, you can view the work you must undertake on this topic as a chance to create a safer, healthier and more pleasant work environment that attracts and retains top talent while minimizing risks of costly legal battles down the road.

Ultimately, when you take steps to prevent workplace sexual harassment and address any occurrences promptly, you’re showing your employees that they’re your company’s most valuable assets.

Are you looking for ways to safeguard your business in the ever-changing HR compliance landscape? Download our free e-book: HR compliance: Are you putting your business at risk?