Is It Sexual Harassment? Understanding the True Definition

by Jill Schaefer on January 23, 2018

With sexual harassment all the rage in the news over the past few months, certain egregious violations are quite apparent. However, when I overheard some people at a restaurant saying that they’re on edge in the workplace, as if every action may be held against them, I knew it was time to clarify what exactly is and isn’t sexual harassment.

Yes, It's Harassment

Unwanted Sexual Advances
Happens Often
Creates a Hostile or Offensive Work Environment
Derogatory Comments, Slurs, Malicious Jokes
May Occur Without Economic Injury or Discharge of the Victim
Graphic Commentary About One’s Body, Sexually Degrading Words
Inappropriate Touching, Assault, Blocking Movements

No, It's Not Sexual Harassment

Simple Teasing
Isolated Incidents That Aren’t Very Serious
Offhanded Comment
Consensual Behavior
Hug Between Friends
Mutual Flirtation
Benign Compliments on Physical Appearance

What if Your Intensions are Good?
We had a client ask us recently if he could compliment a female coworker who had lost quite a bit of weight as a way of acknowledging her hard work. We said that if diet, exercise, and weight loss were typical topics of casual conversations at their workplace that it would probably be OK. However, if it would seem random, out-of-the-blue, or entirely too personal, we advised against saying anything.

Even if your intentions are good, you may inadvertently cross a line.

Take these compliments, for example, one set is workplace appropriate and the other set has gone too far.

Acceptable Compliments
“That’s a nice outfit.”
“I like your new haircut.”

Not OK
“That skirt really shows off your figure.”
“You should wear tighter clothes to impress me.”

Sexual Harassment Doesn’t Just Happen to Women…
Another thing to point out, is that sexual harassment doesn’t just happen to women. According to a Washington Post survey, 10% of men have experienced sexual harassment at work. According to the EEOC, reports of men experiencing workplace sexual assault have nearly doubled between 1990 and 2009, from 8% to 16% of all claims.

For both men and women, shame, fear, and cultural norms deter them from reporting sexual harassment. In many cases, the perpetrators threaten the victims, saying that they will ruin their careers, harm them, or otherwise disparage them. Victims fear they won’t be believed, will be blamed, or will be subject to professional retaliation, such as being fired.

Now that you know more about sexual harassment, doesn’t it make you want to end it?

Additional Resource
KPA’s “#NoMore! How to Root Out Sexual Harassment in the Workplace” webinar

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