Career Woman

What should you do about sexual harassment at work?


Sexual misconduct of any kind can have far-reaching effects on a victim’s life. For example, when children are exposed to sexual abuse it can create long-term complications, including depression and anxiety, negative self-esteem and self-worth, eating and sleeping disorders and substance abuse.

The same can be true for adults who face sexual abuse or harassment, but for females in the workplace, it’s an all-too-often occurrence.

With the #MeToo movement, more people have come forward to share their experiences of sexual abuse or harassment at work.

According to a survey conducted by Stop Street Harassment, a nonprofit, 81% of women and 43% of men had experienced some form of sexual harassment during their lifetime.

In that survey, multiple forms of sexual harassment were included. For example, it included verbal harassment as well as touching without permission.

Thirty-eight percent of women said they’d experienced it at work.

Along with mental health effects, sexual harassment at work can impact a woman’s career significantly. There was research cited by Fast Company that showed when women report sexual harassment, it can lead to a potential reluctance to promote them.

The majority of women and men who experience sexual harassment at work don’t report it because of fears of stigma and retaliation. Some people may not report problematic behaviors or issues at work because they don’t know if it crosses the line.

The following are things to know if you’re a woman who’s experiencing harassment at work.

What behaviors would be considered sexual harassment?

Sexual harassment at work can be overt or subtle. We often think about the more overt forms of harassment, such as being slapped on the bottom or receiving unwanted solicitations, but harassment can take many different forms.

Sexual harassment is illegal under the Civil Rights Act, and this outlines two types of sexual harassment.

The first is called quit pro quo harassment, which occurs when someone in a position of power requests sexual favors or initiates sexual behaviors that result in job action. This could include a promotion or getting fired.

A hostile work environment is described as one in which employees are subjected to either unwanted physical or verbal conduct that creates difficult or abusive working conditions.

Most types of harassment fall into the category of a hostile work environment.

Examples of sexual harassment that may not be as obvious include:

  • Repeated compliments of appearance or attractiveness
  • Discussing a person’s sex life or asking a co-worker about their sex life
  • Showing nude or inappropriate photos, memes, comments or other content
  • Making sexual jokes
  • Leaving unwanted gifts that seem romantic or sexual
  • Spreading rumors related to sex or sexuality
  • Unwanted hugs or touching

When it comes to the legal standard of a hostile work environment, typically, behavior needs to be offensive to the employee but also a reasonable person in the same situation.

Other things to know

There are a few primary misconceptions people often have about sexual harassment at work.

First, many people think that sexual harassment only applies to your boss or coworkers, but in reality, your employer has a legal responsibility to protect you from harassment by customers or clients too. This also extends to vendors and business partners.

If your employer knows inappropriate behavior is going on, they should take action to stop it.

Sexual harassment doesn’t just apply to a male harassing a female. While this situation is most common, females can harass males, and same-sex harassment is illegal as well.

Things that are sexist also fall into the category of sexual harassment. For example, being offensive to someone based on their gender can be characterized as sexual harassment.

What steps should you take?

There are some things you should do if you believe you are the victim of sexual harassment at work. These include:

  • Keep a record—regardless of the next steps you plan to take, it’s important to have a record and document of what’s going on. If you don’t have specifics, it can be too easy for a company to try and discredit the situation. If you end up reporting the harassment or going to a lawyer, it’ll be a lot easier if you have records of all the incidents as they were happening.
  • Be firm about the fact that the behavior is unwelcome and unwanted. Be clear and direct when you’re letting the other person know that you are not interested in their advances, and you no longer want them to make comments to you that are inappropriate and uncomfortable. If you don’t feel comfortable speaking to the harasser, you should access your company’s sexual harassment policy and find out how you should report the situation.
  • Report the harassment internally to the appropriate party and if you don’t think they’re adequately dealing with the situation you can also file a complaint with the Equal Opportunity Employment Commission (EEOC). EEOC reports have to be filed within 180 or 300 days of the harassment occurring and the organization will look at the situation and there is a range of options they may take.

While it is illegal for your employer to retaliate against you for making a claim, it does still happen, unfortunately. Many employees are known as at-will and this means that the employer can come up with some other reason as to why they’re firing a person.

There are also subtle forms of retaliation that can occur.

If you’ve reported harassment at work and either nothing is being done, or you feel you’re the victim of retaliation, it may be a good time to speak to a lawyer.

You also have to remember the effects sexual harassment can have on your mental health and well-being and take care of yourself throughout the process of reporting it and dealing with it, whether legally or otherwise.

You might consider speaking with a  counselor to help you work through the emotions that it can bring, including the trauma and the isolation that you can feel when you’re the victim of sexual harassment.

About Susan Melony'

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