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How to Identify Sexual Harassment in the Workplace

Are you being harassed or discriminated against? Would you even know if it were happening today, on the job? Overt sexual harassment is what we see in movies, our media, and on TV, but it isn’t always that obvious. We’ll look at what constitutes sexual harassment and what you should do if you’re experiencing unwanted sexual advances from a coworker or work in a hostile workplace.


According to the Equal Opportunity Employment Commission (EEOC), workplace sexual harassment is defined 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.” The notions of unwelcome sexual advances or a hostile work environment are the parts that must be interpreted, but the law does a pretty good job of defining these key points.


Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 defines sexual harassment in two ways – either hostile work environment or “quid-pro-quo.”


A hostile work environment occurs when unwelcome conduct is severe enough to create an offensive, uncomfortable or abusive workplace. Courts will look at several elements to determine if a workplace is hostile, including:

  • How often the conduct occurs
  • If the conduct is physical, verbal, or both
  • The relationship between the alleged harasser and the claimant
  • Whether one person was victimized or a group of individuals
  • Whether one person was a harasser or a group was allegedly at fault
  • Whether a reasonable person would consider the conduct hostile, offensive or abusive Note stuck to a cork board that says "quid pro quo"


Quid-Pro-Quo Harassment has been all over the media headlines these days. It refers to inappropriate sexual demands from a person in a supervisory capacity toward a subordinate, with the understanding that the subordinate will tolerate the harassment as a condition for keeping his or her job. Quid-Pro-Quo harassment can also exist when supervisors insist that subordinates tolerate sexual advances as a condition of receiving a promotion, benefit, raise or other work-related incentives.


Victims of sexual harassment must take an active role in eliminating specific inappropriate behavior in the workplace. While there are numerous ways to work toward this, it is always wise to start with a simple conversation. Here are several key tactics to keep in mind when attempting to stop sexual harassment at work.

Get vocal – Does your harasser know you are uncomfortable? Have you made it plainly obvious that you do not welcome the sexual advances, comments or otherwise inappropriate behavior? Step one is to make your position known and personally try to stop the harassment – and make sure to document everything you do.

Involve leadership – If your communication with the abusive party does not resolve the issue, involve your supervisor or human resources department to escalate the issue. Keep your company guidelines and policies in mind when addressing the issue, and follow the chain of command. If you continue to receive an inadequate response, simply keep moving the issue up to higher levels of management.

Document everything – Each time a harassment event occurs, it must be written down and “entered into record.” Instead of writing this on a piece of paper, email a quick note about the situation, who was involved, the day and time and what you did about it. Then, organize these notes into a journal that can be used as a quick reference guide by an attorney, if necessary.

If you’ve done everything in your power to stop the sexual harassment and nothing seems to be working, it may be time to hire a competent and experienced sexual harassment attorney. They’ll help you determine if you should send a complaint to the EEOC, file a civil lawsuit under Title VII, and proceed with the investigation in compliance with state and federal guidelines.

Sexual harassment in any form is unacceptable, and an experienced attorney can help.