What’s Considered Sexual Harassment at Work?

Verbal, written, nonverbal or physical—no matter what the form, it’s against the law.

me too

Medically reviewed in December 2021

Ben Affleck, Charlie Sheen, Dustin Hoffman, Harvey Weinstein, James Toback, Kevin Spacey and most recently NBC’s TODAY Show host Matt Lauer. Day by day, the list of celebrity men accused of sexual harassment at work grows. But it’s not only celebrities. The viral #MeToo Twitter campaign gave voices to other sexual violence survivors and victims.

The nationwide conversation around sexual violence, which includes sexual harassment, is getting louder. And that’s a good thing. The more comfortable people are with coming forward, the more difficult it will be for perpetrators to continue to act in abusive ways.

Sexual harassment on the job isn’t something new. In 2016, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) received nearly 13,000 sexual harassment-based charges. This number does not include unreported incidents or incidents reported only to state and local agencies—which is over 75 percent of the total cases that actually occur. 

Women aren’t the only people who experience sexual harassment either. Men, women, transgendered people, children, gay or straight are victims of this unlawful act every day.

Sexual harassment at work may seem tricky because you’re talking about someone’s career, but no act of sexual violence should be tolerated. So, what is workplace-related sexual harassment? Why is it difficult for survivors or victims to come forward? And how will it end if you do come forward? Here are the answers.

Sexual harassment isn’t just sex
Many people assume that sexual harassment involves a colleague locking the door of their office and forcing them to have sex. And while that is one form of harassment, there are so many other acts that are unacceptable, too.

The EEOC describes sexual harassment as unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, verbal or physical harassment of sexual nature, offensive remarks about a person’s sex or severe teasing that creates a hostile work environment. 

To be more specific, here are some of the ways perpetrators commit acts of sexual harassment while at work—verbally, physically, nonverbally and visually.

Verbal or written:  

  • Commenting on your clothing, behavior, body or romantic relationships
  • Telling sexual jokes or innuendoes 
  • Asking for sexual favors or dates  
  • Spreading rumors about your sex life
  • Threatening you when you refuse their requests


  • Keeping or disrupting you from moving
  • Touching your clothing or body inappropriately
  • Kissing, hugging or showing any other means of physical affection
  • Touching you without your permission


  • Staring at your body
  • Making offensive and sexual motions or facial expressions
  • Following you around or refusing to respect your personal space 


  • Exposing posters, pictures, screensavers or emails that involve sexual cues

In addition to these examples, sexual harassment isn’t just sexual—equally offensive is anything related to your sex or gender. For example, if your career involves a position dominated by male employees and you receive harsh criticism far more often than men in your role (and your work performance is comparable), that’s considered sexual harassment. And, it’s illegal to harass a woman by making disrespectful comments about women in general. 

The legal classification of harassment involves activity that is either pervasive or severe; it doesn’t have to be both. If you’ve been sexually harassed, you’ll want to start thinking about your next course of action: reporting the misconduct.

It can be difficult to come forward
You may think that coming forward to admit what you’re going through may put you in a difficult position career-wise, but it’s worth stating again, that by law, sexual harassment at work is a form of discrimination that violates Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. And the US law even protects victims and survivors from being punished for complaining about harassment.

Of course, reporting harassment might be easier said than done. Most victims or survivors are hesitant to report misconduct because they:

  • Fear damage to their career
  • Think that no one will believe them
  • Believe nothing will be done about the harassment
  • Feel embarrassed or ashamed of the harassment

And while those feelings are understandable, reporting the incident is the first step to stopping your harasser from hurting you or anyone else.  

How to report sexual harassment at work
If you’ve experienced harassment at work, first understand that it isn’t your fault and you aren’t alone. Whether you have a human resources department at work or not, there are actionable steps to take to bring your perpetrator to justice, including:

  1. If you’re in immediate danger, call 911.
  2. Always keep detailed notes about any sexual incidents. 
  3. If you feel comfortable doing so, communicate to the person harassing you that you want them to stop.
  4. Find your anti-harassment policy in your employee handbook and follow the steps suggested. (The instructions will often involve contacting your human resources department). 
  5. If you don’t have a harassment policy, talk with a supervisor about what has happened—and it doesn’t have to be your own.
  6. If you don’t have a human resources department at your company, talk to your boss or a supervisor. You can also find an employment attorney in your area that can discuss your legal rights with you. From there, they can coach you through what to do. You can file a charge of discrimination with the EEOC here.
  7. Don’t wait. Deadlines to file a complaint with the EEOC (if that’s the route you choose) vary from state to state, so you’ll want to report it as soon as you feel comfortable doing so. And if you’re reporting it to your company, the sooner you report it, the sooner your company can deal with the perpetrator.
  8. Confide in a friend or family member. It always helps to have someone to lean on, and someone to support you as you come forward.
  9. Seek advice from others who’ve experienced what you’re going through, too. Organizations like Equal Rights Advocates and the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network provide information about coming forward and guidance for those who’ve experienced sexual harassment—in the workplace and beyond.

What happens next all depends on your place of employment, their harassment policy and the severity of the situation. In some cases, simply telling your harasser to stop is sufficient, but in other cases, your human resources department or supervisor will need to get involved and take action.

The most important thing to remember is that sexual harassment is not your fault and you don’t have to put up with it no matter where you are—work, home or school.  Seek help as soon as you can, and stay encouraged by reading stories of those who have come forward and are spreading awareness.

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