How to Define and Combat Sexual Harassment in the Workplace

Sexual harassment in the workplace is a widespread societal problem that damages lives and opportunities, while costing businesses millions in legal fees, productivity and talent. For further perspective, more than 6,500 sexual harassment claims were filed with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) in 2020, which recognizes sexual harassment as a form of employment discrimination. In fact, 38% of women and 14% of men have reported being the victim of sexual harassment at work, and one in seven women have quit or sought a new position due to the harassment. 

Although an all-too-common issue in the workplace, nearly three out of four sexual harassment claims go unreported, often due to fear of retaliation in the workplace where studies have shown that 72% of people who report a sexual harassment face some sort of retaliation. 

These numbers show that organizations must do a better job to cultivate a workplace culture that prioritizes employees’ safety and wellbeing and where employees’ voices are heard. 

Defining Sexual Harassment in the Workplace

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 makes it illegal for employers to allow anyone to be sexually harassed in the workplace, regardless of gender, sex or sexual orientation. Although the law does not prohibit teasing or non-serious isolated incidents, the unwanted behavior becomes illegal when it’s so frequent or severe that it creates an offensive or hostile work environment.  

Sexual harassment does not have to be sexual in nature, but it can include comments about a person’s sex. For example, it’s illegal to harass a woman by making offensive comments about women in general. Sexual harassment is defined by its impact and not its intent, and according to the EEOC, sexual harassment can occur in a variety of ways, including: 

  •   Requests for sexual favors

  •  Inappropriate statements

  •   Unwelcome sexual advances

  •   Verbal or physical harassment of sexual nature

  •   Lewd gestures

  •   Sexually explicit jokes, emails or texts

  •   Offensive objects or images

The Difference Between “Quid Pro Quo” and “Hostile Work Environment” Harassment

The EEOC’s guidelines define two types of sexual harassment. Although both forms of sexual harassment can occur together, distinguishing between the two is necessary when determining the employer’s liability.

  • Quid pro quo sexual harassment means “this for that.” This type of sexual harassment involves expressed or implied demands for sexual favors in exchange for some benefit, such as a promotion or pay increase and is perpetrated by someone in a position of authority over another.

  • Hostile work environment sexual harassment occurs when speech or conduct is so severe and pervasive that it creates an intimidating environment that negatively affects job performance. This type of sexual harassment can be perpetrated by anyone in the workplace, including a supervisor or peer.

Tips for Combating and Reporting Workplace Sexual Harassment 

Prevention is the best tool to eliminate workplace sexual harassment. Employers have a duty to keep their employees safe and create a healthier workplace culture, as they can be held liable for sexual harassment that occurs in the workplace. 

  • Establish Clear Expectations. It’s crucial to establish clear protocols and a step-by-step process for employees to report sexual harassment at work. Recent research from Gartner found that one in three employees say that they are unaware of their organization’s anonymous methods of reporting misconduct. Reporting tools should be easily accessible to all employees in order to ensure they are aware of how to report any incidents of sexual harassment or other types of discrimination. 

  • Implement Effective Training Programs. It’s important to establish an effective training program to combat sexual harassment at work. Studies have shown that training focused on forbidden behaviors does not reduce workplace harassment. In fact, it actually escalates the problem, making men more likely to blame the victims. A more effective type of training is “bystander-intervention” training, which is used on hundreds of college campuses and by the U.S. Army. This proven-effective training follows the approach of “if you see something, say or do something”. 

  • Change the culture. Change starts at the top. It’s the employer’s responsibility to foster a work environment where sexual harassment or discrimination of any kind is not tolerated. Organizations should regularly revisit and evaluate their mission, vision and values and show their executive support around training and initiatives to uphold them.

Sexual harassment is alive in the workplace, but there are steps organizations can take to help prevent it. Work Shield offers solutions to report, investigate and resolve sexual harassment claims in the workplace from start to finish and without bias. Create a work environment of integrity and trust and ensure all your employees' voices are heard by partnering with our experienced team of professionals. To learn more about Work Shield, contact us here

About Jared Pope

Jared is Founder and CEO of Work Shield, the only start-to-finish workplace harassment and discrimination reporting, investigation and resolution solution that protects employees, employers and cultures at the same time. Jared practiced law and ran a practice focused on human resources, ERISA, benefits and employment matters for over 15 years and is a knowledgeable resource on workplace culture and harassment and discrimination issues.

Connect with him on LinkedIn.

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