What is considered sexual harassment at work? And how does it differ from non-sexual harassment? Sexual harassment in the workplace is a form of discrimination that includes uninvited comments, conduct, or behavior regarding sex, gender, or sexual orientation.
All employees—in any position, from management to entry-level or hourly staffers—should be aware of what qualifies as workplace harassment and avoid these behaviors or report them if they occur.
Sexual vs. Non-Sexual Harassment
Even though it's the type of harassment that is most often reported, harassment in the workplace and hiring isn't limited to sexual harassment. Other actions regarding religion, race, age, gender, or skin color, for example, can also be considered harassment if they interfere with an employee's success or conjure a hostile work environment.
Examples of Sexual Harassment in the Workplace
It doesn't matter who makes the offense. It could be a manager, a co-worker, or a non-employee like a client, contractor, or vendor. If the person's conduct creates a hostile work environment, makes it difficult for an employee to work, or interrupts an employee's success, it is considered unlawful harassment.
Sexual harassment isn't limited to making inappropriate advances. It includes any unwelcome verbal or physical behavior that creates a hostile work environment.
Here are some examples of sexual harassment in the workplace and information on how to handle it if you have been harassed at work.
- Sharing sexually inappropriate images or videos, such as pornography or salacious gifs, with co-workers
- Sending suggestive letters, notes, or emails
- Displaying inappropriate sexual images or posters in the workplace
- Telling lewd jokes, or sharing sexual anecdotes
- Making inappropriate sexual gestures
- Staring in a sexually suggestive or offensive manner, or whistling
- Making sexual comments about appearance, clothing, or body parts
- Inappropriate touching, including pinching, patting, rubbing, or purposefully brushing up against another person
- Asking sexual questions, such as inquiries about someone's sexual history or their sexual orientation
- Making offensive comments about someone's sexual orientation or gender identity
These are just a few examples of sexual harassment.
Bottom line: Any actions or words with a sexual connotation that interfere with an employee's ability to work or create an uncomfortable atmosphere are considered sexual harassment.
It's also worth noting that victims of the harassment may not be just the target of the offense, but anyone who is affected by the inappropriate behavior.
That is, a co-worker standing nearby when inappropriate sexual comments are uttered may be affected, even if the comments aren't directed toward them.
Examples of Non-Sexual Harassment in the Workplace
Behavior such as making racist or negative comments can also be construed as workplace harassment. Offensive gestures, drawings, or clothing also constitute harassment.
This sort of workplace bullying can be addressed in the same way that you would sexual harassment—by reporting it to human resources and, if nothing is done, by filing a harassment claim with the EEOC.
Instances of workplace harassment include discrimination, such as:
- Making negative comments about an employee's personal religious beliefs, or trying to convert them to a certain religious ideology
- Using racist slang, phrases, or nicknames
- Making remarks about an individual's skin color or other ethnic traits
- Displaying racist drawings, or posters that might be offensive to a particular group
- Making offensive gestures
- Making offensive references to an individual's mental or physical disability
- Sharing inappropriate images, videos, emails, letters, or notes
- Offensively talking about negative racial, ethnic, or religious stereotypes
- Making derogatory age-related comments
- Wearing clothing that could be offensive to a particular ethnic group
Non-sexual harassment isn't limited to these examples.
Non-sexual harassment includes any comment, action, or type of behavior that is threatening, insulting, intimidating, or discriminatory and upsets the workplace environment.
How to Handle Workplace Harassment
Should you feel like you have been harmed by sexual or non-sexual harassment in the workplace, there are steps you can take to file a harassment claim with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).
In order to successfully file such a claim, however, you have to be able to prove that a) your employer tried to correct the harassing behavior, and b) that the employee responsible for the harassment refused to cease and desist.
It is important that you first report the harassment to your employer’s human resources department, as well as taking detailed notes of the dates, times, and nature of the incidents. If attempts to remediate the situation fail, you must file your claim with the EEOC within 180 days by mail, in person, or by calling 800-669-4000.
It's Important to Know the Rules
When you're job searching, it's important to know that rules apply as to what employers can and cannot ask, related to some of the harassment examples listed above.
During an interview, employers should not be asking about your race, gender, religion, marital status, age, disabilities, ethnic background, country of origin, sexual preferences, or age. If this happens, it should serve as a red flag that you may not want to pursue your candidacy with this employer.
The information contained in this article is not legal advice and is not a substitute for such advice. State and federal laws change frequently, and the information in this article may not reflect your own state’s laws or the most recent changes to the law.