If you are experiencing sexual harassment at work, it is imperative that you understand your rights and options. There are many different forms of workplace sexual harassment that you may not be aware of. Sexual harassment can come from a coworker, a supervisor, a customer or client, and includes anything from unwanted touching, inappropriate comments or jokes, or someone promising you a promotion in exchange for sexual favors. Teasing, intimidating or offensive comments based on stereotypes or bullying someone, or a group of people based on their sex, gender identity or sexual orientation are also considered forms of sexual harassment. For something to be considered sexual harassment, it matters what the person who’s being harassed thinks. It doesn’t matter if the person who’s doing the harassment thinks it’s OK. If the behavior is something you do not want or find offensive, then it’s still harassment.

Why Sexual Harassment Occurs?

Women are much more likely to be victims of sexual harassment in the workplace because they more often than men lack power, are in more vulnerable and insecure positions, lack self-confidence, or have been socialized to suffer in silence. Often times sexual harassment is used to intimidate, disempower, and discourage women in traditionally male-dominated occupations. According to Shawn Burn, Ph.D., a psychology professor at California Polytechnic State University in San Luis, many men are surrounded by a culture that reduces women to be sexualized objects, which normalizes a female colleague in a less than professional manner. Women in certain jobs particularly those in which physical appearance plays a role, sometimes face increased levels of sexual harassment because their job implicitly condone their sexual objectification.

What is Title VII  and how it protects you?

Sexual harassment is a form of sex discrimination that violates Title VII of the Civil Rights Acts of 1964. Title VII is a federal law that applies to employers with 15 or more employees. The law prohibits discrimination in employment on the basis of sex, race, color, national origin, and religion. Title VII also makes it illegal to retaliate against a person who has complained about discrimination, filed a charge of discrimination, or participated in an employment discrimination investigation or lawsuit. A major reason women don’t come forward at the time harassment occurs is because they fear retaliation and retribution in the workplace, such as losing a paycheck or career progression. However, if you report discriminatory behavior, you are protected from unfavorable employment actions, such as termination. Although Title VII was put in place to protect victims of sexual harassment in the workplace, many people across the country still face sexual harassment.

Examples of sexual harassment

Sexual harassment can occur in a variety of circumstances. The harasser can identify with any gender and have any relationship to the victim. Some forms of sexual harassment include:

  • Unwanted sexually explicit photos, emails or text messages
  • Unwelcome sexual advances
  • Making conditions of employment or advancement dependent on sexual favors, either explicitly or implicitly
  • Requests for sexual favors
  • Physical acts of sexual assault
  • Unwanted touching or physical contact
  • Verbal harassment of a sexual nature
  • Exposing oneself or performing sexual acts on oneself
  • Feeling pressured to engage with someone sexually
  • Discussing sexual relations/stories/fantasies at work

What’s your role as a colleague who witnesses sexual harassment?

When it comes to incidents of sexual harassment, if you see something, say something. Don’t be a silent bystander, instead be a vocal support system for your colleague. If your colleague is nervous about reporting sexual harassment, offer to accompany him or her during the reporting process. If you witness a colleague being harassed, do what you can to interrupt the harassment, or distract those taking part in the harassment. You can also help by offering to accompany your colleague anytime they have to meet with the harasser. If they’re worried about walking to their car alone at night, offer to walk with them. The safest way to help and avoid putting yourself in danger is to refer to an authority. If you find it hard to intervene and are worried about your own safety, it may be a good idea to enlist the help of a friend or another bystander.

What you can do as a victim of sexual harassment?

It is normal to be afraid or worried about reporting sexual harassment or taking other action to make the harassment stop. If you are experiencing sexual harassment in your workplace, here are some actions you can take.

  • Ask the person who’s doing the harassing to stop. You can do this verbally or in writing. If you decide to do so in writing, keep copies in case you need proof later.
  • Review your company’s policies and complaint process to find out what policies might be in place to protect you. If there is no information on how to report, see if there is a phone number for Human Resources.
  • Write everything down – such as when the harassment occurred, dates and times, where it occurred, what exactly was said and done, etc. Keep notes of any conversations or meetings you have about the harassment, including HR, your manager, or the person doing the harassment. Save any emails, texts, letters, or messages about the harassment.
  • Report in writing, whether it’s by email or letter.
  • If you’re a member of a union, you could talk to your union representative and consider filing a grievance.
  • If you need help understanding your rights and weighing your options, speak to a employment law attorney.
  • File a lawsuit against your employer in court.

If you are experiencing sexual harassment at work, understand your rights and options so you can take the necessary actions.