Sexual harassment can happen to anyone of any gender identity or sexual orientation. In the most blatant instances, sexual harassment takes the form of a “quid pro quo” (“this for that”) where the perpetrator demands sexual acts from the victim in exchange for a pay raise, promotion, or plum assignment.
But sexual harassment doesn’t have to rise to the level of a quid pro quo to be illegal. Verbal harassment of a sexual nature, unwanted and unwelcome sexual advances, physical touching, or sending or displaying sexualized images or messages to employees may also constitute sexual harassment.
One of the saddest things about sexual harassment is that victims are often “groomed” or encouraged to view harassing behavior as “all in good fun,” “just a joke,” or “part of the job.”
Nothing could be further from the truth. Learn these ten must-know signs you are being sexually harassed to ensure you can tell when things are not right in your workplace.
When a person in a position of power withholds a benefit like a pay raise, promotion, work assignment, or approval of earned vacation days unless an employee performs a sexual act, they are committing quid pro quo sexual harassment. No one should feel required to engage in sex acts just to keep or advance in their job.
Quid pro quo harassment need not include demands for physical contact. Requiring an employee to wear revealing clothing, dance, assume humiliating physical postures, or ensure similar forms of sexualized bullying to secure the benefits of their employment constitutes illegal sexual harassment.
What many victims of sexual harassment don’t realize is that if a supervisor or coworker’s conduct makes them uncomfortable based on sex, they’ve likely been harassed. Sexual harassment includes maintaining or tolerating sexualized behavior, language, or environments so pervasive that it negatively affects an employee’s work—or makes working impossible. This is true even if the perpetrators claim they didn’t know their actions could make someone uncomfortable.
If you are afraid to report discomfort, sexualized messages, or inappropriate sexual behavior to your supervisor or HR office because you anticipate retaliation, including demotion or termination, you are experiencing a form of sexual harassment. Retaliation for reporting illegal activity or for seeking redress under your employer’s policies and procedures is unlawful.
If you are afraid of being sexually assaulted because of someone’s behavior or language in the workplace, you have been sexually harassed.
The head-to-toe visual assessment that so many women and men have experienced in the workplace, where the message is that value as an employee is connected to physical appearance, is a form of harassment. Daily remarks about appearance, including compliments, can amount to sexual harassment if they make an employee uncomfortable based on sex or gender identity.
The office creep who goes around giving unsolicited shoulder massages, the person who always stands way too close in the elevator, and the jerk who thinks it’s funny to block your passage every time you walk down the hall are committing harassment if they are doing this because of their target’s sex, gender identity, or sexual orientation. It is perfectly rational and necessary to report this behavior as the harassment that it is.
When a workplace tolerates ribald jokes, either verbal, written, or “practical” (such as leaving a sex toy on someone’s desk), they are permitting a form of sexual harassment. Jokes that are demeaning to persons because of their sex, gender identity, or sexual orientation are a form of sexual harassment. Workers are entitled to pursue action through their employer’s HR department or other procedures for reporting sexual harassment.
Jokes are over when they reach the punchline, but conversations can last for several minutes or even hours. When workers spend time openly discussing their sex lives, sexual acts, pornography, or other sexual subjects, or frequently describe their work in sexualized terms, they are behaving as harassers. This is true even if the person feeling uncomfortable wasn’t part of the conversation, but simply within earshot.
Sending around sexual images, dirty jokes, or suggestive messages in the workplace is totally inappropriate. If the #MeToo movement revealed anything, it is the disgusting prevalence of this puerile and damaging behavior. If such behavior is still present in your workplace, you may have a hostile environment claim.
There is nothing adorable about this. A supervisor or coworker who doesn’t understand that no means no, even when “Sorry, I’m busy” turns into “NO, and please stop asking me” is committing a form of sexual harassment. Constantly being put in the position of saying no to a boss or coworker is stressful, unfair, and infuriating, and it is a form of unlawful unequal treatment based on sex.
We’ve all seen them, and maybe even used them in anger, but sexual gestures in the workplace are out of line. Aside from simply being rude and disrespectful, gestures or gyrations intended to suggest sex acts that make employees uncomfortable based on their sex, regardless of who the gestures are directed at, are a form of sexual harassment.
You don’t have to email a nude photo to someone for it to be inappropriate. The days of the topless calendar on the wall of the auto shop, or the wall posters of absurdly sexualized models are over, for good.
Displaying visual images that make others uncomfortable because of their sex can create a hostile environment even when the person displaying the photo thinks the picture is harmless. Putting a photo of your girlfriend, suggestively posed in a tiny bikini, on your desk for all to see can be seen as an aggressive gesture intended to intimidate employees based on their sex.
Insults are inherently demeaning and intended to humiliate the person who is the object of them. Whether run-of-the-mill or truly shocking, sexually-charged insults are a more aggressive form of name-calling that can’t hide behind “I was just kidding” statements.
Everyone knows the aggressive intent of flat-out sex-based insults, like the “c” word (rhymes with stunt) hurled at a woman or the “f” word (rhymes with maggot) directed at a non-binary male: they are meant to intimidate or threaten a person based on their sex.
If you or a co-worker has experienced any of these ten must-know signs you are being sexually harassed, contact an experienced sexual harassment lawyer. The law firm of Tamara N. Holder will discuss your case and advise you on possible courses of action to make the harassment stop and hold the harassers accountable.