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Speak Out: Stopping Sexual Harassment at Work

Sexual harassment in the workplace is a serious issue that has the potential to affect the safety, well-being, and productivity of employees.

A piece of paper with the words Sexual Harassment typed on it.

The effects of sexual harassment can be emotionally damaging. Even subtle abuse can tear down someone’s self-esteem over time. It is essential for all staff to recognize what constitutes sexual harassment, learn behaviors to avoid, and understand the steps to take if they experience or witness such behavior.

All employees have the right to a safe and respectful work environment. It is everyone's responsibility to treat others with respect and dignity.

No one should have to endure unwanted sexual advances because they are afraid of losing their job, not getting pay raises, missing out on a promotion, or facing disciplinary action.

Sexual harassment can be devastating, personally and professionally, and it’s against the law. Harassment is illegal when it is so frequent or severe that it creates a hostile or offensive work environment or it results in an adverse employment decision, such as the victim being fired or demoted.

A male supervisor has cornered a female worker alone in a work area and she looks uncomfortable with his behavior.

Sexual harassment is unwelcome speech or behavior that is sexual in nature or in reference to a person’s (or group of people’s) biological sex, sexual orientation, gender, or body.

Typical sexual harassment scenarios include a man harassing a woman, or a person in power harassing a subordinate, but sexual harassment can be someone of any gender or position directing unwanted attention or behavior towards or in the vicinity of any other person or group of people. The harasser can be the victim's supervisor, a supervisor in another area, a co-worker, or someone who is not an employee of the employer, such as a client or customer.

Examples of sexual harassment include:

  • Unwanted physical contact
  • Requests for sexual favors
  • Unwelcome sexual advances
  • Displaying sexually explicit material
  • Suggestive jokes or comments
  • Disrespectful staring or gestures
  • Inappropriate comments on physical appearance
  • Sending sexually explicit messages or images

You can help prevent sexual harassment in the workplace by not acting in ways that other people might find offensive. The best policy is to:

  1. Avoid any unnecessary physical contact with other employees
  2. Do not display any provocative pictures or posters in your work area
  3. Think about what you do and say ahead of time
  4. Stop behaviors that someone says make them feel uncomfortable
A female employee has placed her hand on the shoulder of a male co-worker. He looks uncomfortable and there is a witness.m

To maintain a professional and respectful workplace, it is important to be aware of behaviors that could be interpreted as sexual harassment.

DO NOT make any type of comment about physical appearance, even if you think it’s a compliment.

DO NOT touch anyone without consent or invade their personal space.

DO NOT bring sexual or pornographic magazines, books, or materials to work.

DO NOT share or display inappropriate content or end suggestive messages, emails, or images.

DO NOT make assumptions about someone's personal life or sexual orientation.

DO NOT make remarks about a person’s sexual orientation, gender, gender identification, or gender expression.

DO NOT stare at someone in a sexual way because you find them attractive.

It’s important to remember that not everyone has the same sense of humor, opinions, or feelings about personal space and touching as you do, so act with discretion and respect others' boundaries and preferences. Every person is the judge of what they find offensive and what they would consider to be sexual harassment.

Someone has placed a post-it note on another person's work computer and it says Hey Sexy!

Sometimes sexual harassment can be subtle or less obvious. Behavior that is presented as “friendly” or “just joking around” can still be offensive. These types of actions may include:

  • Talking about sex
  • Commenting on someone’s physical appearance or staring at them
  • Looking at someone inappropriately
  • Displaying sexually suggestive pictures or objects in your personal workspace
  • Writing sexually explicit graffiti
  • Making obscene gestures
  • Placing your hand on a co-workers back or shoulder to get their attention

If someone's behavior offends you, but you believe it may not have been intentional, consider addressing it directly and respectfully. It is important to speak up and say something to them to let them know that what they said or did is not appreciated. Inform the person that their behavior is unwelcome and ask them to stop. Often, an honest conversation can resolve misunderstandings.

You shouldn’t accuse someone of sexual harassment immediately unless you are sure that is what the person intended. Typically, if you let someone know you don’t appreciate their actions, they will change their behavior, and no further action will be necessary. But it’s still a good idea to create a written record of any incident, just in case.

The victim and any co-workers who witness sexual harassment have an obligation to speak up when someone’s speech or behavior is offensive. If you are a witness, let them know that you think their actions or comments are inappropriate. This is called bystander intervention.

Harassers often rely on their victims being unable to reject the abuse or report it to management. But ignoring these incidents or trying to laugh them off may actually encourage further harassment. Shutting down sexual harassment and promoting a safe work environment is everyone’s responsibility.

A person filling out a Sexual Harassment Complaint Form.

It’s important to know your company’s sexual harassment and reporting policy. If you don’t know where to find this information, ask your supervisor or a management representative.

Coming forward to report sexual harassment, as a victim or a witness, is not only the right thing to do, but it is also your responsibility. Use formal internal company channels when reporting sexual harassment.  Contact your supervisor, HR department, or designated officer to report the incident. Follow your organization's policy for reporting sexual harassment. This might include writing a formal complaint or sending an email to HR.

If you are reporting sexual harassment, which might be one instance or repeated behavior, be specific and provide clear details of the incidents, including any evidence or witnesses. Bring along a copy of your written statement when you meet with your supervisor or Human Resources. As they gather more information from you, answer their questions honestly and accurately.

Understand that while HR or management must investigate, they will strive to keep the matter as confidential as possible. How the situation is resolved will depend on the type of harassment that occurred, how often it happened, and other factors. At the very least, the harasser will be warned to stop the offensive behavior or face disciplinary action.

A yellow graphic with a megaphone that says Speak Up.

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