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Sexual Harassment: How to Identify and Fight It in the Workplace

When I hear about our followers enduring sexual harassment in the workplace, I wish I had the power to turn into a centaur wielding a flaming sword. I would burst into their workplace to trample the sexist bullies under my mighty hooves. Then I’d destroy filing cabinets and computers and shit with my flaming sword just for good measure. And I’d do it all while screaming the Misogyny Speech at the top of my lungs.

Valkyrie on a pegasus, flying in to destroy sexual harassment.

In other words: I feel heckin’ strongly about workplace sexual harassment. It makes me a sad panda.

“Fighting back” or “doing something about it” is easy enough in theory. But when your livelihood is on the line, ending the harassment (and punishing harassers) gets a lot more complicated. It can affect your mental health, your physical safety, and your financial security.

Dafuq is workplace sexual harassment?

Conveniently, we have an entire legal definition of sexual harassment. Under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, it’s a form of discrimination on the basis of sex. That Act also covers discrimination on the basis of race, religion, ethnicity, and nationality. But one vicious human rights violation at a time, amirite?

For now, just know that the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission defines sexual harassment as:

Unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature constitute sexual harassment when this conduct explicitly or implicitly affects an individual’s employment, unreasonably interferes with an individual’s work performance, or creates an intimidating, hostile, or offensive work environment.

EEOC

According to a 2018 study, 35% of women have experienced sexual harassment during their careers. Naturally, that number gets worse when the woman is a member of another marginalized group. Almost half of lesbians are harassed at work. And Black and Latina women are more likely than white women to experience workplace sexual harassment. Ain’t intersectionality neat?

Lest you think this is “merely a women’s issue,” 16% of sexual harassment complaints are from men. People of all genders can be targeted and hurt by sexual harassment… and any gender can be a perpetrator.

Most workplace sexual harassment falls into two legal categories.

1. Quid pro quo

A lot has happened since the forty-fifth president’s first impeachment trial. So I’ll briefly define the Latin quid pro quo: “This for that.” In a word, it’s extortion.

If someone at work promises you a raise, promotion, desirable shift, or favorable performance review in exchange for any kind of sexual or romantic favor… that’s a quid pro quo. And it’s sexual harassment.

Likewise, if they tell you they’ll punish you at work unless you put out, that’s sexual harassment.

2. Creating a hostile work environment

This kind of sexual harassment is a little more murky to define. There isn’t a clear exchange or threat of punishment.

From the outside, it’s often subtle. Harassers test the water by telling jokes, making little comments, sending weird texts, or initiating unwanted physical contact. Minor incidents combine together over a long period of time to feel pervasive. And if they’re not stopped, they escalate.

The person affected by the harassment doesn’t even need to be the target of said behavior. Being the lone gay person in an office full of jerks cracking anal sex jokes? Pretty fucking hostile. A woman in a workplace full of men crudely objectifying the bodies of other women? O, the hostility!

Our friends at the EEOC loosely define it as any “unwelcome conduct on the basis of sex that is severe or pervasive enough to create a work environment that a reasonable person would consider intimidating, hostile, or abusive.”

That’s part of what makes this kind of sexual harassment so hard to identify and prosecute. A “reasonable person” and the creation of a “hostile work environment” are up to the court’s interpretation.

Why does sexual harassment even matter?

“Can’t you just suck it up?”

NOPE. No you cannot. There is no Sexual Harassment Straw in the supply closet for simply sucking it up and moving on with your work.

I know I don’t need to convince you that sexual harassment is bad. You’re here, which either means a) you like your career advice with a dash of social justice, b) you’ve experienced sexual harassment for yourself, said “thanks I hate it,” and are now looking for practical advice, or c) you sympathize with harassers and are hoping beyond hope that I’ll give you something to soothe your guilty conscience (I won’t).

Yet sexual harassment does more than just cause discomfort and fear in the moment. The effects are insidious, pervasive, and long-lasting. As a form of bullying, it not only damages the target’s mental and physical well-being, but their ability to financially support themselves.

And that’s kind of the point. Because as with most gender-based violence, it’s not about sex—it’s about power.

Joan and Peggy from Mad Men commiserating about sexual harassment.

Mental and physical well-being

Did I say mental and physical well-being? Sure did! Sexual harassment can cause headaches, gastrointestinal distress, nightmares and disturbed sleep, lethargy, weight fluctuation, acne and other skin problems, panic attacks, and sexual dysfunction. All of which are real, tangible physical reactions that can’t simply be ignored nor leaned into.

Most of these physical effects are tied to psychological causes. Depression, anxiety, feelings of powerlessness, isolation, low self-esteem, shame, insecurity, and more! It’s a whole grab bag of shitty mental health outcomes that negatively affect your personal and professional life.

Financial and career effects

According to the American Psychological Association, sexual harassment can cause decreased job satisfaction, skipping work, unfavorable performance evaluations, withdrawal from work, the loss of a job or promotion, changes in career, and a drop in work performance quality due to stress.

Which like… yeah. If I’m being bullied or harassed at work, I’m not going to want to go to work. I’m going to avoid it. It’s going to distract me from performing at my best. It might even chase me off of a lucrative career path if I see that path is littered with the human potholes that are sexual harassers.

And the stats bear this out. Remember that 35% of women who get sexually harassed at work? That number rises to 45% when we’re talking about male-dominated technical fields. All too often, these fields are not only highly paid, but they foster a culture of harassment and bullying that can create—oh, what do you call it?—a hostile work environment.

People go through the time and expense of switching careers or jobs to get away from sexual harassment. They pursue lower-paid careers to stay away from that kind of workplace. That has concrete, lifelong effects on the victim’s finances.

This kind of abuse hurts people. In real, tangible, and preventable ways.

Here’s more:

When should you act?

I guarantee that if you suspect you’re being subjected to sexist bullying or harassment in the workplace… you are. If you suspect you’re being bullied because of your gender… you’re right.

A clear explanation of sexual harassment and consent.

Don’t gaslight yourself by excusing them or thinking you’re imagining things. Take action right away! Don’t give things time to escalate.

Many times when someone reports sexual harassment, the harasser escapes punishment because they “waited too long.” If the harassment is part of an escalating pattern of abuse, victims will be asked why they didn’t act to stop it right away. There are plenty of sad examples in the stories below!

So don’t wait. The first time something happens, start the process of fighting back (more on that below).

And if your reaction to a report of sexual harassment is “They waited a while before taking action. It must not have bothered them much,” you’re contributing to an environment that enables harassers. Instead, think “They waited a while before taking action. They must have had a lot of psychological pain to process and fear of negative career repercussions to get over.”

Can I report sexual harassment on behalf of others?

You don’t have to be the target of harassment in order to do something about it!

Last week we talked about ways everyone, no matter their gender or race, can help to shut down the gender and racial pay gap. In fact, we talked about how the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act never would have happened were it not for an anonymous man looking gendered pay inequality right in its stupid face and saying “Not today, Satan.”

I wish I could say the same theory applies with sexual harassment. But alas and alack, it’s more complicated than simply reporting the injustice when it’s not happening to you (though that is certainly an option).

It’s often difficult or completely unclear how to take action on behalf of others. Take, for example, this gut-wrenching story from Ask A Manager. She explains why she’s still atoning for not handling a serial sexual harasser correctly.

Focus on the victim

When you’re unsure about how to be a good and supportive ally, focus on the victim’s needs.

If you notice someone being sexually harassed, ask them if they need or want your help. Then ask them what form they want that help to take. Sometimes a victim of sexual harassment might just want someone to listen and validate them! Or they’re nervous about reporting the harassment without a supportive witness. Maybe they’ve already reported it and they just need someone to act as a buffer between them and their harasser.

It’s important to center the victim’s sense of comfort and safety. Don’t push someone to take action when they’re not comfortable. And definitely don’t take action on their behalf if they explicitly tell you not to.

Victims of sexual harassment can feel targeted and alone. Making it clear that you are there to support them in whatever way they feel is appropriate can mitigate the harm of sexual harassment.

Pay it forward

When I was laid off, the last thing I did before leaving was send an email to the only woman left in my department. I knew she would be taking over most of my projects. Here is the first sentence of that email:

“Don’t ever be alone with the following men…”

I then listed three people who had been sexually harassing me. One was a known sexual harasser in our industry who constantly intimidated younger women into going out with him. One was a man who once sent me a PDF of nude photos with no context or explanation. And one was the stereotypical “creepy old man” who could never keep his damn hands to himself.

These men had made aspects of my work uncomfortable and frustrating without warning. While my male supervisor was supportive in acting as a buffer and handling the harassers, it still sucked.

I didn’t want the woman I was leaving behind to go in unprepared. And I definitely didn’t want her to be struck dumb and frozen by shock the way I was. I wanted her to have it easier and maybe protect herself.

Years ago, a woman named Moira Donegan started a crowdsourced spreadsheet of accused sexual harassers in the media industry. The accusations on the spreadsheet were unverified and made anonymously. Women who participated by adding names were accused of “smearing” the men on the list. They got a lot of negative blowback.

Yet anyone who has ever experienced workplace sexual harassment knows what that spreadsheet really meant. It was a method of self-preservation, of group safety and protection. It was a way of doing what I did with my email on a massive, industry-wide scale.

It’s rough out there. Protect each other.

A step-by-step guide to reporting sexual harassment at work

There is no one-size-fits-all method to dealing with sexual harassment. Solutions range from legal action to verbal reprimands. And while I usually prefer petty revenge as my solution to… well, everything, it might not be appropriate. So here are some actions you can take to protect yourself and stop harassment if it happens to you.

Document EVERYTHING

As soon as the harassment occurs, take copious notes. Date, time, who said what, who did what, everything. “Captain’s Log, Star Date 43917.4. I was sexually harassed today.” That sort of thing.

If you have an employee handbook or a company mission statement or anything like that, find the place where it talks about how sexual harassment will not be tolerated. Add this to your written log of evidence.

Keep track of your performance evaluations and any accomplishments or milestones. You don’t want them to try to make the problem go away by wrongfully terminating you rather than punishing the harasser.

Whether or not you decide to pursue punitive action, writing this shit down will help give you options. It’ll also help you to be believed. And harassers thrive on their victims not being believed.

Take evidence to human resources

You can present your documented evidence to the company’s HR manager and tell them you’ve been sexually harassed. Here are a few example scripts:

“I am concerned that this pattern of sexual harassment is creating a hostile work environment for me and the other women at this company.”

“This was a clear example of a quid pro quo. [Harasser] told me I would not be considered for the promotion if I did not go to dinner with her.”

Remember that HR is not there to protect you. They are there to protect the company. You want to use specific language that references the legal definition of sexual harassment. That way, it signals that the company is at risk of a sexual harassment lawsuit if they don’t fix this shit. They might not give a damn about your psychological comfort and safety, but they sure as hell want to protect their money from lawyers.

Add your notes and any written documentation of the meeting to your log of written evidence.

If you don’t have a human resources department

If you do not have an HR department, bring this evidence to your boss and say the same thing. And if your boss is the harasser or is complicit in the harassment, bring your evidence to the highest-ranking woman you can find in the company. There is a power imbalance here and you need allies stat.

Go back to that employee handbook. Your company may have an Equal Employment Opportunity Officer or another way for you to file an internal complaint.

And whether or not you have an HR department, you can always file an official complaint with the EEOC. But you need to inform your employer if you expect any legal or professional consequences for your harasser.

Protecting yourself

Again: this is not a perfect system. As you’ll see in the stories below, many times company leadership does fuck-all to help. And unless you want to go through the miserable process of taking formal legal action, your employer might think it’s easier to just shrug off your complaints.

Which is why—whether or not you choose to report the harassment!—you need to protect yourself.

Talk to HR and a supervisor if you can about putting distance between you and the harasser. Tell them you don’t want to be partnered with them on projects, don’t want to be scheduled during the same shift.

If possible, ask to remain anonymous when the culprit is disciplined. Make it clear you’re afraid of professional repercussions. Impress upon HR how fucking serious this is.

Then find your allies. A work friend who sympathizes with your situation can make all the difference. And the more people who know, the harder it’ll be for your harasser to hide.

Waiting for results

The goal is to get the harassment to stop. Preferably, before it escalates to something worse. Some employers have formal warning systems or three-strikes processes for handling harassment internally. Others handle sexual harassment on a case-by-case basis… or not at all. It really depends on the company.

If nothing is done or if nothing changes, wait three weeks, then go back to the person with whom you filed your complaint. Ask them for a schedule of when the company will be disciplining the culprit and performing mandatory anti-sexual harassment training in the workplace. Be direct. Don’t ask “if.” Say “when.”

It can be mind-bendingly frustrating to endure harassment after you’ve already taken steps to report and stop it. Don’t give up. If you won’t do it for yourself, keep in mind that you’re likely not the harasser’s first victim. And you almost certainly won’t be the last unless something is done to stop them.

Examples of sexual harassment

You don’t have to look far for stories of workplace sexual harassment. In fact, all we had to do was put up the Bitch Signal (it’s like the Bat Signal, but for wronged women with an axe to grind) and the sexually harassed came out of the woodwork to share their stories.

I include these stories not to make you uncomfortable, nor to be like “LOOK HOW BRAVE!!!” (Though they are brave for being willing to relive their trauma for educational purposes. I love each and every one of them and I want their harassers to suffer the pain of stepping on a Lego every morning for the rest of their natural lives.)

We have this societal stereotype of sexual harassment that’s like, a leering male manager demanding a blow job from a shy female employee “or else.”

I wish sexual harassment was always this obvious.

I’m sure that very obvious grossness is true of some people’s experiences of sexual harassment! But it can also be much more complicated, varied, and subtle. So let me leave you with these true stories from our readers. They should radicalize you.

Making their worthless opinions about your body known

“When I was 19 I worked at a restaurant with an older guy. He was kind of a dick in general, but as I usually wore my hair in a ponytail he asked to see it down one day when it was slow. I’m trying to remember his exact phrasing—it was something to do with me being sexier with my hair down.” -Meraxes

“I sure have been sexually harassed at work! Notably by the *Communications* VP of a boutiquey small biz who told my manager to write me up because I was dressed like a ‘skank’ (objectively was just wearing shorts like most other staff).” -Chickie

Telling crude “jokes”

“As a 16-year-old girl, I had my first job and was super nervous, and acted formal like I was taught to do in a professional setting. My manager (an older woman) told me that I ‘needed to get laid and maybe I’d loosen up.’ That wasn’t the first time she’d harassed me, but it stuck with me. She said it in front of everyone and clearly intended to humiliate me.” -Anon

Pressuring you to do weird personal tasks

“My old boss (we’re both women) used to get changed for work functions in her office, and ask me to zip up her dress. She was directly in charge of my job and whether I got promoted, so I could never say no, even though I had a terrible working abusive relationship with her and it made me very uncomfortable. After she came back from sexual harassment training, she made a joke like ‘I guess I can’t ask you to zip me up anymore or you’ll report me and I’ll get fired, haha!’ And then I had to zip her up anyway.” -Anon

Sending or requesting porn

“A coworker showed me his Twitter feed in the breakroom. It was absolutely full of porn.” -K

“A guy in my industry sent me dick pics. Within seconds, he sent a frantic apology, saying he’d meant to send them to someone else. I told him it was okay, an honest mistake, and promised I wouldn’t mention it to anyone. I was proud of myself for being so chill. My pride turned to humiliation when I learned it was a scam. He did the same thing to dozens of others.” -Anon

Unwanted touching

“While restocking shelves at my retail job a ‘customer’ came up to me and held my waist to get my attention. He didn’t even try to use his voice first to ask a question and I was facing the wall while stocking so I didn’t see him sneak up. It was so scary and creepy.” -Anon

“One time a female coworker was explaining the stories behind her tattoos to me, but when we finished with her visible tattoos she pulled her shirt up to show me one just below her bra. ‘This one REALLY hurt because there’s no fat between the skin and the bone,’ she explained. ‘Feel!’ I politely declined but she insisted so I touched the tattoo to put an end to it. Super awkward and uncomfortable.” -Anon

Straight-up assault

“I worked in a restaurant. Walking past the chef, he had a long rubber spatula and slapped my ass with it. Ultimately I did not do anything about it. There was no HR department, I was the only woman working in the kitchen. At that point I’d been dealing with sexual harassment in the kitchen for four years so I just shrugged it off and tried to see to it that going forward, I did not do anything that could be misconstrued as ‘flirting’ with him.” -Youser

“I caught one of the directors of my department trying to take a picture up my skirt in a meeting. I was so shocked that I didn’t say anything to the people around me. Went to HR after the meeting, and it turns out the head of HR was a close personal friend of this director. Not only did they do nothing, she had the nerve to say ‘he’s a great guy, you should get to know him’ as I was leaving her office in tears. Needless to say, I now wear pants in the office.” -Anon.

Enabling

“I work at a very large, busy bar. One of the managers was notorious for slapping people’s asses as a ‘joke.’ Guests regularly hit on and make the female employees uncomfortable. One guy was making comments about my body and laughing at me for being uncomfortable. Multiple managers and a security guard all refused to kick him out. They cut him off but let him stay at my bar. Then one of our older (female!) bartenders continued serving him in front of me because he ‘wasn’t bothering her.'” -Anon

Intimidation

“I confided in one of my coworkers that a roommate raped me. He started to talk about how he’d treat me better sexually and frequently talked about having sex with me. He also threatened to beat me, and when I told him there were cameras in the store, he said we were in a spot where the cameras didn’t work, and no one would believe me. Later another coworker jokingly tried to hit me. When I flinched, the first guy laughed and said that made him want to hit me even more. I should’ve reported it but I was too scared to because it got to my head that no one would believe me and I’d make him mad.” -Anon

Escalation

“At my last job there was a guy who started with genuinely nice compliments. That my shirt looked good or my shoes were cool, that kind of stuff. And then he just… kept escalating? Little by little over a year. It happened so gradually that even once it got really inappropriate and uncomfortable I didn’t really know how to object. Then one day he came up behind me and grabbed my hair to pull me back against his body. I snapped at him ‘Never touch me again. Had a small panic attack in the restroom, and finally got the courage to report him a few days later. The owner said that since I didn’t report it on the spot and it had happened just out of sight there was nothing he could do.” -Nicole B.

Retaliation

“A coworker I’d been hanging out with in a group and sometimes alone let me know he was interested when I was ready to date again. I let him know I wasn’t interested. A year later, he gets a girlfriend, stops talking to me, and is hostile at work. He is team lead and creates the schedule, including PTO, and assigns people duties of varying importance. I no longer get two days off in a row, asking for vacation time feels like a confrontation, I don’t get to create the front page of the newspaper we worked on, etc. He even started throwing papers at me. Everyone noticed his attitude toward me. Hurt feelings and retaliation are the main points of this sexual harassment, not some exec getting handsy or making an inappropriate joke like we all picture.” -ML

“I work at a motorcycle apparel and parts store and I deal with men being misogynistic on the regular. Can’t tell you how many comments I’ve gotten about being a woman who likes motorcycles. Or guys trying to buy stuff for their girlfriend who want me to ‘try it on.’ I had a man buy a helmet for several hundred dollars that I make commission off of. He then RETURNED it because I wouldn’t go on a date with him. Sexual harassment is literally just part of the daily life of a women in a male-dominated field. -Pica

Pin this article

Phew. That was a depressing one, readers!

If you want to talk about a personal experience, the comments are open. But please only do so if it would feel helpful or cathartic. Our comments are a safe space, but they’re also public, and we get that this is hard to talk about.

If you, like me, are feeling a lot of impotent rage after reading, consider pinning this article. Pinterest is a social media platform dominated by women, but it’s shocking how little information it has on this subject.

One of them is a cheat sheet for witnesses to react to harassment. Because even if you understand the problem of workplace sexual harassment, it doesn’t mean you’re always ready to react to it. I hope I can help us become better allies when those moments come. So if you have a moment, help us spread far and wide!

11 thoughts to “Sexual Harassment: How to Identify and Fight It in the Workplace”

  1. When I was looking for a job, one of the employers had said “no but on a personal note, what’s your phone number? I checked out your Instagram and you look really hot” And he also emailed a picture of his little friend in an email. (Have no idea how to write this any more politely).

  2. Harassment does not have to meet the legal requirement to cause negative consequences for someone. The legal system is jacked up sometimes… see “reasonable person” standard and all the care around making sure gender and sex related stuff is UNWANTED (at least for women). Somehow no one expects other protected classes to desire being called slurs or shown the equivalent of dick pics… it’s understood it’s unwanted.
    One thing to note is that retaliation is a legal offense *in and of itself* – even if HR finds your initial complaint “unfounded” or whatever, if the perp or buddies retaliates, that is AN EVENT itself – document THAT too.
    Re: harassment of men – often done by other men. See for example Oncale v Sundowner.

    1. EXACTLY. I just read “Know My Name” by Chanel Miller, about the Stanford rape survivor. And it was infuriating to see how far “but she wanted it” got the rapist during the trial and aftermath.
      And thank you so much for all your clarifications. I just read Oncale v. Sundowner and it infuriated me.

  3. I had a situation with a professor this year (very inappropriate oversharing). The professor is very popular and I enjoy the class so I just kept ignoring how uncomfortable it made me feel until the dam burst. I was too anxious to even write an email reporting their behavior. Someone promised to help but didn’t. The behavior stopped, but I want to have the confidence and tools to stand up for myself and others in these sorts of situations. Thank you, thank you, thank you for your blog.

  4. I had a customer literally tonight tell me he remembered I helped him last time but he couldn’t tell me the reason why he remembered me “because it’s inappropriate” and then while I was trying to look up his order on the computer he told me I had a wonderful body. I just kinda smiled uncomfortably and didn’t respond, but I don’t know how I should have reacted. I was the only employee at the lumber sales desk at the time and I didn’t want to tell him off and have him complain to management and get me fired (I think technically I would be in the right, but the general manager fired a department manager last week for being an hour late because she couldn’t get to work before the city snowplows cleared the 12″ of snow off the road, so I have no doubt he’d fire me for that). I don’t want sexual harassers to think they can get away with that kind of thing and I would like to do something other than ignore it, but at the same time, I need to keep my job.

    1. I just… UGH. How hard is it for these assholes to just keep their mouths closed?
      You’re in a horrible position, but you’re not alone. We’re rooting for you, Jay.

  5. I had a manager who used to tell me about all his “conquests” in disgusting detail. I told him over and over I didn’t want to hear it and one day I told him this talk was sexual harassment. He replied that it couldn’t be because he was a gay man and I was a straight woman. I told him that having to hear these sexual details when I didn’t want to was still harassment.

    He even went so far as to call me when I was working for a week at another branch and tell me about a one night stand he just had. The thing is, if I had known then what I know now I could have reported him and it would have been taken seriously. It was a large company with worldwide branches and complaints would have been looked in to. I was young and didn’t really understand how HR worked and I felt isolated because we were the only branch in that state.

  6. One other note on documentation – if timeline is going to be crucial or potentially questioned, document by emailing/texting to yourself (or a trusted friend), in a google doc, etc. Somewhere where the tech can confirm the date stamp (so you can’t be accused of fudging the timeline).

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