What’s Considered Sexual Harassment at Work?

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

an image implying workplace sexual harassment; a man's hand reaches across a desk to touch a woman's hand

Updated on February 2, 2024.

Although it may rise and fall in the public consciousness depending on coverage in the media, sexual harassment on the job isn’t something new and is not going away. In 2022, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) received 6,201 charges alleging sexual harassment, up from the 5,581 charges filed in 2021. These numbers do not include unreported incidents, which make up an estimated 75 percent of the total cases that actually occur. 

Women make up the vast majority—upwards of 80 percent—of people who file sexual harassment charges with the EEOC. But they are not the only people who experience sexual harassment. People of every sex, sexual orientation, and gender identity experience this unlawful act every day.

Some people may be reluctant to report sexual harassment at work because people’s livelihoods and careers are at stake. But it’s important to remember that no act of sexual harassment 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 some answers.

Sexual harassment isn’t just sex

Many people assume that sexual harassment involves a colleague locking the door of their office and forcing someone to have sex. And while that is certainly one form of harassment, there are other acts that fall under the category.

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

The harasser and victim may be of the same or different sex or gender identity. The harasser does not necessarily need to be a supervisor. They may be a co-worker or even someone who is not an employee of the company, such as a client, vendor, or customer.

To be more specific, here are some of the forms that sexual harassment in the workplace might take.

Verbal or written

  • Commenting inappropriately on someone’s clothing, behavior, body, or romantic relationships
  • Telling sexual jokes or innuendoes 
  • Asking for sexual favors or dates  
  • Spreading rumors about someone’s sex life
  • Threatening an employee when they reject harassing behavior (such as by refusing sexual requests)

Physical

  • Preventing someone from moving through an office space
  • Touching someone’s clothing or body inappropriately
  • Kissing, hugging, or showing any other means of physical affection
  • Touching someone without their permission

Nonverbal

  • Staring at someone’s body in an unwanted or inappropriate way
  • Making offensive and sexual motions or facial expressions
  • Following someone around or refusing to respect their personal space 

Visual

  • Presenting posters, images, screensavers, or emails that depict sexual content

Sexual harassment doesn’t only have to be about sexual activity. It can also involve teasing, intimidation, and commentary related to someone’s sex, sexual orientation, or gender identity.

For example, if your career involves holding 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. It’s also illegal to harass a woman by making disrespectful comments about women in general. 

If you’ve been sexually harassed, it’s important 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 in your job or career. But it’s worth stating that, by law, sexual harassment at work is a form of discrimination that violates Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. United States law protects victims and survivors from being punished for reporting harassment.

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

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

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. There are steps you can take to help bring your perpetrator to justice, including:

  • If you’re in immediate danger, call 911.
  • Always keep detailed notes of any incidents. 
  • If you feel comfortable doing so, communicate to the person harassing you that you want them to stop.
  • Find the anti-harassment policy in your employee handbook and follow the steps suggested. (The instructions will often involve contacting your human resources department.) 
  • If your company doesn’t have a harassment policy, talk with a supervisor about what has happened. If you don’t have a supervisor or don’t feel comfortable talking to them, know that the supervisor you speak to doesn’t have to be your own.
  • If you don’t have a human resources department at your company, talk to your boss or a supervisor. You may also seek out an employment attorney in your area who can discuss your legal rights with you. They can coach you through what to do. You can also file a claim of employment discrimination with the EEOC.
  • If you do choose to file a complaint, don’t wait. Deadlines to file a claim with the EEOC vary from state to state, so you’ll want to report it as soon as you feel comfortable doing so. If you’re reporting the incident directly to your company, the sooner you report it, the sooner your company can deal with the perpetrator.
  • 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.
  • Seek advice from others who’ve experienced what you’re going through. 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 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. In other cases, your human resources department or supervisor will need to get involved.

The most important thing to remember is that sexual harassment is not your fault and you don’t have to put up with it. Seek help as soon as you can.

If you are in crisis, you can speak with a trained professional by calling the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 800-656-4673 or by chatting at online.rainn.org.

Article sources open article sources

AFSCME. Preventing and Combating Sexual Harassment in the Workplace. Accessed on February 1, 2024.
Equal Rights Advocates. Know Your Rights At Work. Sexual Harassment. Accessed on February 1, 2024.
Perry, Davida S., Kovel, Daniel H. What to Do If You’re Sexually Harassed and Your Company Doesn’t Have HR. Time. November 27, 2017.
RAINN. Sexual Harassment. Accessed on February 1, 2024.
U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Charges Alleging Sex-Based Harassment (Charges filed with EEOC) FY 2010 – FY 2022. Accessed on February 1, 2024.
U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. How to File a Charge of Employment Discrimination. Accessed on February 1, 2024.
U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Office of Enterprise Data and Analytics (OEDA) Data Highlight No. 2. Sexual Harassment in Our Nation’s Workplaces. April 2022.
U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Select Task Force on the Study of Harassment in the Workplace. Report of Co-Chairs Chai R. Feldblum & Victoria A. Lipnic. June 2016.
U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Sexual Harassment. Accessed on February 1, 2024.
U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. What You Should Know: What to Do if You Believe You Have Been Harassed at Work. Accessed on February 1, 2024.

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