Sexual Harassment Definition: Everything You Need to Know

Sexual harassment is pervasive in many (if not most) industries. Many people (primarily women, though not always) fear sexual harassment in the workplace. Sexual harassment may drive women away from pursuing certain industries and if your workplace has a reputation of allowing sexual harassers off the hook, this can be a huge detriment to your business. So why does this happen? Why do employers continue to allow workplace sexual harassment if they know that it can cause them to lose talented staff members? In reality, many employers aren't aware of the true sexual harassment definition. They may not recognize common examples of sexual harassment or they may not hear about what's happened. We're here to help you identify these problems so you can start preventing sexual harassment and protecting your valued employees. Keep reading to learn more.

Sexual Harassment in the Workplace: How Common Is It?

If you've never experienced sexual harassment you may not know how common this problem is. As we said, it spans across many industries. While people are becoming more aware of sexual harassment, it still hides. Sexual harassment often goes unreported. With that in mind, over 6,500 cases of sexual harassment were reported to the EEOC in the fiscal year 2020. Luckily, this is lower than the previous year. Despite the cases of sexual harassment going down, it's still a problem. Many women unofficially report that they've experienced sexual harassment in the workplace even if they don't report it to the EEOC.

Sexual Harassment Definition

So what is sexual harassment anyway? Sexual harassment is any sex or gender-based negative interaction between employees. There are various types of sexual harassment and some are more common than others. Most of the time sexual harassment is defined as unwelcome sexual contact or behavior, discrimination or treatment based on sex or gender, or discussing sexual topics in the workplace around someone who doesn't want to hear them. This probably seems too vague to identify, but here are some examples to help:

Extreme Examples of Sexual Harassment

Sexual harassment is difficult to see when it isn't obvious. If you've never experienced this type of harassment it's common to ignore it, not believe victims, or not recognize it at all. The obvious forms of sexual harassment in the workplace are sexual assault. These things include unwanted groping, touching, and other extreme sexual situations. That said, not all sexual harassment types are as obvious.

Less Obvious Forms of Harassment

If someone is giving gifts or sending sexual messages to someone who doesn't want them, even after they're aware that the targeted employee is uncomfortable with this contact, it's sexual harassment. It's easy to write this behavior off as "being nice," but it's undesirable and can make the target feel threatened. If someone (especially someone who is of a higher rank than the target) is requesting sexual favors for things like advancement or help in the workplace, it is sexual harassment. This is a frightening and coercive experience. If workplace chatter includes sexual topics and an employee nearby feels uncomfortable, the offenders should stop the conversation. If they don't, it's sexual harassment (even if it's unintentional, but it often is intentional). Sexual harassment also includes things like spreading nude photos of employees or talking about sexual experiences with them. Even if the photos or experiences were consensual at the time (or if the employee sells sexual photos) it's inappropriate to speak about this in the workplace. If you or someone else discriminates against an employee based on their sex or gender, this is sexual harassment. This is not a conclusive list. If you're not sure whether or not something is sexual harassment, it's anything that makes someone uncomfortable based on their sex or gender. The average person would consider it inappropriate.

What Isn't Sexual Harassment?

That's a long list, so what isn't sexual harassment? Not all forms of harassment in the workplace are sexual harassment. Harassment can be discriminatory or general. If an employee is making people uncomfortable or treating them unfairly, this is still harassment even if it isn't gender-based. If someone feels uncomfortable with another employee's behavior it's good to believe and support them, but don't be afraid to ask a professional whether or not that behavior is sexual harassment. If it's not, it's still appropriate (and even advisable) to separate these employees to avoid future problems.

Why Wouldn't People Report Sexual Harassment?

So why wouldn't someone report sexual harassment in the workplace? Why would you, as an employer, have to identify it on your own? Some people fear that no one will believe them. As a result, sexual harassment may get worse and cause the employee to leave or put them in danger. They may also fear for their job if they think that the employer won't respond well to their accusation. They may not trust their own perception. It's common for harassers to claim that the harassment is "no big deal" and that the employee is being "too sensitive." Employees may also feel as though their experience isn't extreme enough to be harassment. If the offending employee is "above" the target in rank, they may fear demotion or retaliation.

Who Experiences Sexual Harassment in the Workplace?

Contrary to popular belief, sexual harassment can happen to anyone in the workplace. While it's most common for women to experience sexual harassment, men and non-binary people can also fall victim to it. Women can perpetrate sexual harassment and people of all sexual orientations can be victims or perpetrators. Sexual harassment spans across all races and ages. Underage people can experience harassment from adults. Even customers can perpetrate (or fall victim to) sexual harassment and it's still your responsibility to handle that situation. It's normal for employers to only look at interactions between men and women when it comes to identifying sexual harassment. Employers may even brush off experiences that men report, but this is inappropriate. It's your job as an employer to believe employees and investigate the situation even if it doesn't fit into your mental image of what sexual harassment can be.

What Are the Results of Sexual Harassment?

As an employer, you might be wondering how sexual harassment can impact the workplace. It's common for employers to not care about harassment if it isn't affecting their bottom line. Let's talk about sexual harassment laws first. While the law doesn't prohibit minor infractions, such as one-off experiences or accidental comments, frequent sexual harassment that creates a hostile or threatening work environment is illegal. If you don't take action, you may also be liable for these situations. Sexual harassment that doesn't result in legal intervention still harms your company. It damages your reputation and can cost you, valuable employees. People who experience sexual harassment in the workplace will not stay in a hostile environment if they can help it. If word gets out, you may even lose customers.

Can You Prevent Sexual Harassment?

Sexual harassment in the workplace is preventable. While the main problem is the person doing the harassment, you can help prevent these situations. Make sure that you invest in sexual harassment training. While most employers do some kind of training, it's insufficient in many cases. It may not cover subtle examples of harassment. Let employees know the consequences of sexual harassment and make sure that everyone knows that you are there to listen if they want to report it. People who feel like they can go to their employer with problems will feel safer in the workplace and potential harassers may lose their motivation if they know they're risking their jobs.

How Should You Respond to Sexual Harassment?

So what should you do when sexual harassment happens in the workplace despite your best efforts? If someone reports sexual harassment it's best to believe them. That doesn't mean you have to take immediate action against the employee but you should try to get more information and investigate the issue. When in doubt, take the word of the person who's reporting the situation. Make sure there are consequences. Often, the best response is firing the offending employee. For minor infractions or one-off events, give a warning and separate the employees if you can. Your goal is to protect people in your workplace.

Sexual Harassment: It's More Common Than You Think

The sexual harassment definition covers many problems. If someone's behavior toward another employee is inappropriate and the employee is experiencing this behavior due to their sex or gender, it's sexual harassment. As an employer, you need to protect and support your employees. To do this, give your employees adequate sexual harassment training. At HIPAA exams, we don't just focus on HIPAA training. We also offer comprehensive training programs for harassment of all kinds. Check out our training courses and improve your workplace today.