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Diversity & Inclusion

Steps to Identify and Prove Sexual Harassment in the Workplace

Sometimes you know you're being harassed. Your boss asks you to perform certain sexual favors in exchange for a promotion — or to avoid a pink slip. Other times, sexual harassment isn't as easy to identify. How do you know if you're a victim, for example, of a hostile work environment?


Identifying sexual harassment begins with your gut instinct that something seems off. Even if you're not the target, addressing workplace problems can improve office relationships by weeding out negative individuals. However, more often, it ends in the victim losing a promising career if she doesn't understand her legal rights. Here's what you need to know about how to prove sexual harassment if you're a victim.

Different Types of Sexual Harassment

Two different types of sexual harassment exist — quid pro quo harassment and a hostile work environment. Quid pro quo harassment translates to "this for that." This occurs when a supervisor or other authority figure demands sexual favors in exchange for positive career advancement or to avoid professional consequences.

This doesn't mean all quid pro quo harassment proves as clear cut as, "sleep with me and you'll get a promotion" or "perform oral sex on me or I'll fire you." Those in managerial positions know such blatant acts can result in disciplinary action and generally choose more subtle approaches.

For example, a friend of mine - a married woman - reported her boss sent her sexually suggestive text messages inquiring if she ever fantasized about the two of them together. When she refused to engage in the conversation, he slashed her salary by a third, claiming budgetary factors indicated a choice between decreased pay or the unemployment line.

Sexual harassment occurs at all levels of an organization and isn't confined to management. Although rare, quid pro quo harassment can occur between co-workers. For example, if a woman confides in a male colleague about her struggles with drug addiction, he may threaten to reveal her condition to the boss if she doesn't perform sexual favors.

Another type of harassment occurs when innuendos, jokes, and even unjust rule enforcement create a hostile work environment. Offensive jokes, physical assaults or threats thereof, insults, put-downs, name-calling, slurs, or offensive pictures and objects that interfere with work performance can all be considered to create a hostile work environment.

To meet the standard, these acts must go beyond being simply annoying or irritating. They must occur on a persistent basis and be pervasive enough that a reasonable person finds them offensive.

A hostile work environment might also be at play when patterns of unwanted attention result in negative action.

For example, if one co-worker asks another out and gets rejected, they may retaliate by spreading sexual rumors about the object of their affection, or retaliating in more subtle but equally professionally damaging ways: refusing to provide the victim with beneficial projects, refusing to assist the victim with otherwise typical work tasks, etc. Many companies prohibit co-workers from dating one another to minimize such incidents.

However, such policies are difficult to enforce pragmatically. Additionally, ongoing gender discrimination leads many male managers to believe women welcome such unwanted advances.

In a hostile work environment, the targeted victim need not file a complaint themselves. Those who witness the harassment occurring can also intervene.

For example, 30 states lack equal protections for sexual orientation or gender identity per statute. This means many lesbians who experience harassment pass on reporting such incidents to HR. They fear retaliatory actions for doing so. Allies of the LGBTQ+ community should report hostile work environments for those who may fear losing their jobs.

How to Identify Sexual Harassment

If you're the target of sexual harassment, chances are, you instinctively feel something is wrong. However, keeping an eye out for certain behaviors in the workplace can help you become a better ally to women and members of the LGBTQ+ community alike.

  • Inappropriate touching. Some people are touchier than others. Certain folks like to greet everyone with big hugs and air kisses. However, in a professional setting, respecting individual boundaries is critical. If a particular co-worker or supervisor continues to get touchy even after you've asked them to stop, consult HR for recommendations.
  • Jokes of a sexual nature. Is the banter around your office not work-appropriate? If so, this could create a hostile work environment. Jokes regarding other people's physical characteristics are never OK, especially if they center on breasts or genitals.
  • Overly intrusive conversations. Asking, "how was your romantic weekend with your new beau," is acceptable. Inquiring about how hot and heavy things got between the sheets is not. In interview situations — including ones for promotions — asking about your plans for getting married or having children is not OK.
  • Forwarding inappropriate materials. You may find the joke your friend shared on Facebook hilarious. However, if anything smacks of an off-color hue, take a hard pass on forwarding the meme around the office. If you're shooting naughty boudoir pics on your iPhone, think carefully before texting them. If they accidentally end up in a boss's or co-worker's hands, you could find yourself on the losing end of a harassment suit.

Who to Contact About a Harassment Claim

If you witness sexual harassment in the workplace, who do you report it to? The decision ultimately depends on the size of your organization, your level of trust, and alternate reporting options.

In general, beginning by reporting in-house proves most effective, especially in cases of a hostile work environment. This allows HR representatives to work privately with offending individuals to modify their behavior. Proceeding in this manner can ease interoffice relationships, as the party need not lose their job if they display genuine remorse and a commitment to change.

However, if you work for a small firm, things may be more difficult. There may not be anyone dedicated to processing such claims. In this case, file a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. You must do so before commencing a lawsuit against your employer for damages. The agency will give you a "right to sue" letter to present to attorneys. As many state statute of limitations for sexual harassment run out after only a few months following the last reported incident, filing in a timely manner is critical.

Finally, you'll want to contact a licensed employment attorney. Ultimately, the company you work for is liable for harassment if it knew of the offense and did nothing or little to stop it. That's another reason why reporting to HR first in many cases proves critical.

How to Prove Sexual Harassment Occurred

Many sexual harassment cases boil down to he-said-she-said debates, so documenting the incidents proves critical. When you first suspect harassment, start collecting evidence.

Create a journal indicating the dates, times, and descriptions of harassing incidents. Due to the malleable nature of handwritten documents, keep an electronic record if possible. While rare, if forensic computer scientists need to pinpoint the exact date an event occurred, they can verify it.

If others witness the events, ask them to verify your account. Write down the names of any parties who can confirm when and where specific things occurred.

Save copies of all text messages. For example, you can use apps to transfer text messages and Messenger notifications to your computer for printing. Recording phone calls remains illegal in many cases without notice, but if you can verify you were a party, such evidence may prove admissible.

Finally, document any adverse actions your harasser took against you. Include information such as dates you heard about specific rumors circulating, especially if the offender is a co-worker, not a superior. You may encounter difficulty proving these rumors impacted your ability to get a raise or led to your dismissal. However, the more evidence you amass, the better your chances of receiving financial compensation for injuries suffered.

Stopping Sexual Harassment

While many critics feel we can no more eliminate sexual harassment than we can stop murder, current laws enforce the values we as a society hold dear. By holding harassers liable for their behavior, we can create a more inclusive, positive, and productive workforce.

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