The Basics of Sexual Harassment in the Workplace

Author Headshot Written by Liz McDermott

Sexual Harassment in the Workplace

Sexual harassment is a serious problem that affects people of all genders and backgrounds. It's also one that can severely impact your business, from lawsuits to decreased productivity and employee turnover.

Anyone of any race, age, sex, sexual orientation, or gender identity can be a victim or a harasser. Given the dynamics of today's workplaces and the potential for intimidation based on power relations between employees and their managers or between co-workers, sexual harassment in the workplace is a real problem. Workplace sexual harassment introduces a wide range of potential costs that impact individuals—including victims, perpetrators, and bystanders—employers, the government, and society.

That's why it's important to make sure your employees know how to recognize and report sexual harassment—and that they're not only aware of what the consequences can be if they don't but also know the steps when experiencing sexual harassment.


Identifying Sexual Harassment in the Workplace


Sexual harassment is often generalized as unwanted sexual advances, and it's a type of workplace harassment. Sexual harassment can be defined as any conduct, comment, gesture, or contact of a sexual nature against an employee in the workplace because of sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, or gender expression, where the course of comment or conduct is known or ought reasonably to be known to be unwelcome. At its worst, it can also be sexual violence.


Educate Your Workforce on the Different Types of Sexual Harassment Conduct


All gender identities can be victims of sexual harassment. Sexual harassment can also take place between individuals of the same sex. It can occur between managers, supervisors, coworkers, clients, contractors, and vendors. Examples of sexual harassment or sexual abuse include:

  • Unwelcome sexual comments or jokes, including sexually explicit conversation or innuendos about sex (e.g., “You look like you need to get laid”)
  • Visual conduct, such as making sexually suggestive gestures or displaying inappropriate sexually oriented materials
  • Unwanted sexual advance requests
  • Displaying pornographic or sexist pictures or materials
  • Forwarding correspondence in a sexist or potentially offensive manner, either in writing or electronically (e.g., e-mail, text message)
  • Leering (suggestive persistent staring)
  • Commenting on a person’s appearance or attractiveness beyond social norms
  • Unwelcome physical contact, such as touching, patting, or groping, with an underlying sexual connotation
  • Requests for sexual favors
  • Sexual assault



Quid Pro Quo


Quid Pro Quo Sexual Harassment


Quid pro quo is Latin for "this for that." It refers to an exchange. In this type of sexual harassment, an employee’s response to unwelcome sexual advances by someone who has power or authority over the employee affects tangible aspects of his or her compensation, terms, conditions, or privileges of employment.

Quid pro quo harassment occurs when employment decisions and conditions are based upon whether an employee is willing to grant sexual favors. That is, when:

  • Submission to such conduct is made a condition of an individual’s employment or
  • Submission to or rejection of such conduct by an individual is used as the basis for employment decisions affecting that individual.


Quid pro quo harassment is committed by a supervisor who controls an employee's job or promotions.



Hostile Work Environment Sexual Harassment


Hostile Work Environment Sexual Harassment


Hostile work environment harassment is conduct of a sexual nature that is sufficiently severe or pervasive to alter the conditions of employment and create an abusive environment. Such conduct has the purpose or effect of unreasonably interfering with the individual's work performance or creating an intimidating, hostile, or offensive working environment.

A hostile work environment can be claimed if a reasonable person would find the conditions to be:

  • Unwelcome
  • Unreasonably offensive
  • Severe or pervasive


Any employee can be liable for committing hostile work environment sexual harassment.


Sexual Harassment Prevention Training for the Workplace


Education can prevent sexual misconduct and mitigate sexual harassment litigation. As an HR leader, educate yourself on the different types of sexual harassment to know if an incident has occurred. You should also be able to explain when an instance crosses the line into illegal behavior and becomes sexual harassment.

The key to preventing sexual harassment is for employers and management to make it clear to every employee and workplace participant that workplace sexual harassment is unacceptable.

This can be done by:

  • Developing a clear sexual harassment policy
  • Establishing an internal complaint process
  • Ensuring that employees understand the sexual harassment policy and the complaint process
  • Developing and maintaining a program to implement the sexual harassment policy
  • Modeling appropriate behavior throughout the workplace
  • Monitoring employees and addressing problematic situations


Make sure everyone in your company knows what to do and where to go for help if they experience sexual harassment or witness someone commit sexual harassment.

Let employees know sexual harassment is intolerable in your workplace by setting clear policies and providing annual sexual harassment training. By offering sexual harassment training courses for employees and managers, they can learn more about how to handle situations where they're witnessing or experiencing sexual harassment at work.


Use Sexual Harassment Training to Record Acknowledgment


A sexual harassment and discrimination prevention training program is a good way to ensure that employees meet regulatory compliance and understand the workplace's sexual harassment policy. It's also a powerful communication channel to let employees and contractors know that sexual harassment is intolerable in your workplace.

Your training should also include examples of different types of conduct that may be considered sexual harassment, such as:

  • Unwelcome advances or requests for sexual favors. For example, asking an employee out on a date, repeatedly asking them to go out with you even though they've declined your offer, or telling an employee that they will receive a raise if they sleep with you.
  • Verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature. This could include comments about an employee's body parts, jokes about sex, inappropriate references to gender, showing pictures or videos of nude people, making lewd gestures, etc.
  • Inappropriate references to gender identity or expression, including transgender status.


Online sexual harassment training with record-keeping capabilities is an effective tool to not only ensure that your employees are aware of the consequences of violating the policy but also reduce the risk of litigation should your company be audited.


Include a Sexual Harassment Complaint Procedure


Your sexual harassment policy should include a complaint procedure that informs employees of multiple ways to report sexual harassment.

  • How to report sexual harassment
  • How to report sexual harassment anonymously if you are not comfortable naming your harasser
  • How to report sexual harassment to someone other than your supervisor, such as HR or the legal department
  • How to report sexual harassment directly up the chain of command, including who should be contacted if you are unsure how high up you need to go for your complaint to be heard


Retaliation for Reporting an Allegation of Sexual Harassment


Employees should be reminded that they can report sexual harassment to a supervisor, manager, or HR professional. They should also be reminded that retaliation is illegal and will not be tolerated by the company. If an employee feels like reporting a sexual harassment incident could result in losing their job or receiving some other negative consequence, it's important to reassure them that such a consequence is not allowed under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and state regulations.


Prevent Allegations of Sexual Harassment to Help Protect Your Business


A recent study found that 17% of employees surveyed said they had experienced sexual harassment in the workplace within the past two years. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) estimates that employers do not resolve at least 80% of reported sexual harassment complaints. Sexual harassment can lead to lawsuits, lost productivity, and more. In fact, according to the EEOC, around 30% of workers who experience harassment file a formal complaint with their employer before leaving their jobs.

Sexual harassment training is important for all businesses, large or small. Not only does it help prevent employees from offending their coworkers and supervisors by conducting themselves inappropriately, but it also acts as a reminder that companies want to provide safe and respectful work environments for staff members. This training increases the chances of preventing sexual harassment claims from being lodged against businesses and helps improve employee morale. Sexual harassment training can be used in conjunction with prevention policies drafted by lawyers or human resource specialists to prevent any charges or claims from occurring.


Sexual Harassment Prevention Online Training


Defining sexual harassment is what employee training is designed for. Online sexual harassment training is the best resource HR leaders can use to get everyone on the same page when it comes to defining sexual harassment and inappropriate behavior. Harassing behavior of a sexual nature makes anyone feel uncomfortable, intimidated, or degraded. To prevent workplace sexual harassment, it's important that your company culture discourages offensive conduct or any behavior that can lead to an offensive work environment.

Consider Vubiz's award-winning sexual harassment and discrimination prevention training courses that meet federal laws and state regulations in the U.S., Canada, and Australia. These online courses are available in English and Spanish.