What is Considered Sexual Harassment at Work?

March 2, 2023 | Attorney, Matthew Dolman
What is Considered Sexual Harassment at Work?

Are You a Victim of Sexual Harassment in the Workplace?

Professionalism is the hallmark of a successful and efficient workplace, but the standards of what we consider a professional work environment have shifted over the years. Office spaces have begun shifting from gray wastelands of cubicles to more open and accessible workspaces that mimic those used by companies like Google or Facebook.

Despite all this change, one concern remains the same throughout all workspaces: employer sexual harassment. Definitions of what is sexual harassment at work have changed as the #metoo movement brought more attention to stopping unprofessional and unethical sexual behavior in the workplace. To protect yourself and file a claim against your aggressor, speak to a skilled sexual abuse attorney today to discuss your legal options.

What is Sexual Harassment in the Workplace?

Sexual harassment is an all-encompassing term that can refer to many types of unprofessional behaviors in the workplace. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) defines sexual harassment as unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature. This behavior constitutes sexual harassment when the 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.

Sexual harassment is a form of sexual discrimination that encompasses a wide range of inappropriate sexual actions that can be as small as an inappropriate sexual joke to sexual abuse and rape. Victims of employer sexual harassment can file a sexual harassment claim or lawsuit against certain liable parties to pursue compensation for physical and emotional damages.

The Victims and Perpetrators of Sexual Harassment

According to CNBC, one-fifth of American adults have experienced sexual harassment at work. Portrayals of sexual harassment usually consist of the most commonly understood situation of a male using their position of power to make unwanted sexual advances upon a female co-worker with the threat of negative consequences relating to their employment status (also called quid pro quo sexual harassment). While this is one of the more common scenarios of sexual harassment in the workplace, the reality of who can sexually harass or be harassed is much more complex than this.

Traditional gender roles make it more difficult for men to admit that a woman has sexually harassed them. Sexual harassment can also occur between people of the same gender and others. Sexual harassment requires behavior sexual in nature that creates a hostile work environment, whether that behavior is jokes, unwanted advances, or physical interaction. These behaviors can be committed to and by anybody, regardless of race, gender, or position in the company.

Sexual harassment does not always have to come from someone who has a position of seniority or a position of power. An employee can make unwanted sexual advances upon their employer or superior. Sexual harassment can also come from many sources outside of the usual group of work colleagues. Clients, third-party contractors, and total strangers to the workplace can all sexually harass.

A lot of the time, people with sexual harassment complaints filed against them did not realize that they were making a co-worker uncomfortable. Sometimes, the victim of harassment may not know at the moment what was happening but does later.

What Kind of Behavior is Considered Sexual Harassment at Work?

When most people think of sexual harassment, they visualize a lascivious older man giving an unwanted shoulder massage to an uncomfortable woman. This is definitely an example of sexual harassment, but the various acts and behaviors that constitute sexual harassment at work extend much further. Sexual harassment is anything of a sexual nature that creates a hostile work environment.

The following are some of the behavior that could be considered sexual harassment in the workplace:

Verbal Sexual Harassment in the Workplace

Sexual harassment is not limited to physical contact. Verbal behavior can also be considered sexual harassment. For example, inappropriate sexual jokes that make a co-worker uncomfortable can be sexual harassment. Additional forms of verbal sexual harassment can include:

  • Sexual comments about an employee's clothes, hair, complexion, or physique
  • Referring to an adult as a girl, stud, sugar, hunk, doll, babe, honey, or any other unprofessional term of endearment
  • Whistling or catcalling someone
  • Asking about sexual fantasies, preferences, or history
  • Making sexual comments or innuendos
  • Repeatedly asking an uninterested person out on a date
  • Turning work discussions into sexual topics
  • Telling sexual jokes or stories
  • Telling lies or spreading rumors about a person's personal sex life
  • Asking personal questions about social or sexual life
  • Making kissing sounds, howling, and smacking lips
  • Other sexual behaviors that offend or intimidate a coworker

Sexual Harassment Through Digital Communication

With the advent of the internet and the integration of digital communication into almost every aspect of our lives, sexual harassment has also spread into this form of communication. Many workplaces require close communication between employees via email or text, which can lead to sexual harassment.

The professional standards for verbal communication apply to electronic communication as well. Unique digital communication opportunities, such as the ability to send videos or links to websites and various forms of media, can result in sexual harassment. Links to sexually suggestive websites and videos or pictures of a sexual nature ranging from jokes to full-blown pornography are sexual harassment.

Social media can also be a source of sexual harassment. An employee can repeatedly request a date with an uninterested co-worker or spread lies relating to a co-worker's sexual life. Sometimes, this can be even more problematic due to the ability to operate anonymously through different social media accounts without a name attached.

Non-Verbal Sexual Harassment in the Workplace

Non-verbal gestures and behavior can cross the line of professional conduct into sexual harassment. Generally, any nonverbal behavior perceived as being sexual in nature can result in sexual harassment of a co-worker that makes them feel uncomfortable. Things that can be considered non-verbal sexual harassment can include:

  • Giving personal gifts
  • Looking at a person up and down
  • Staring at someone
  • Blocking a person's path
  • Making facial expressions such as winking, throwing kisses, or licking lips
  • Following the person
  • Displaying sexually suggestive visuals
  • Making sexual gestures with hands or through body movements
  • Leaving someone notes with sexual messages or pictures
  • Removal of clothing in front of someone
  • Suggestively touching oneself

Physical Sexual Harassment and Sexual Assault

Generally, any unwanted physical contact that makes a co-worker uncomfortable can potentially be considered sexual harassment. It's common knowledge that most professional settings have very few instances where physical contact with a co-worker is necessary. Handshakes, high fives, first-aid, or a light tap on the shoulder are fairly innocuous and difficult to consider sexual. Massages, hugs, pinching, rubbing, violating someone's personal space by getting too close, or any other kind of physical contact without a valid nonsexual reason can be considered sexual harassment.

In some circumstances, this unwanted physical touching can escalate to sexual assault. This refers to any forced contact without the consent of the person receiving the contact, including fondling, forced sexual touching, and rape. Following a sexual assault in the workplace, you should seek medical attention for any physical injuries, contact the police, notify your employer, and seek help for any mental trauma caused by the assault.

What To Do if You're a Victim of Sexual Harassment in the Workplace

Sexual harassment and assault are grave violations of the law that can fall under the purview of criminal litigation. Still, there are situations where an employer can be found liable for the damages caused by sexual harassment and assault. If you can prove that an employer's negligence through bad hiring practices or refusal to take action resulted in sexual assault or harassment, then a sexual harassment claim to seek compensation may be possible.

Can Sexual Harassment Happen Outside of Work?

Workplace sexual harassment does not have to occur at the workplace; it just has to involve people you work with. Sexual harassment is damaging because it creates a hostile work environment that can affect your mental health during and after work hours. If you are out with a couple of co-workers getting dinner after hours, a co-worker could still sexually harass you and create a hostile work environment the next day.

Sexual harassment can also occur if part of your job takes you offsite. Although your company may not employ them, you can still be sexually harassed by clients, vendors, and customers that you may interact with outside of the office or the place of business. No matter where the sexual harassment occurs, it's vital to report the harassment as soon as possible to a company superior or human resources department. You should also consider speaking with an experienced sexual harassment lawyer to better understand your legal rights.

What Steps Should You Take Following a Workplace Sexual Harassment?

In the case of severe or ongoing sexual harassment, you may want to file a claim or lawsuit to pursue compensation for damages caused by the harasser. Even if the case is not severe, there are certain steps everyone should follow to ensure the sexual harassment incident is reported and known to the company you work for.

The following are some of the steps you should take following workplace sexual harassment:

  • Report the sexual harassment to your company's HR department: The first thing you should do after experiencing sexual harassment is let your company know about it. In this way, the company cannot act as if future incidents came from nowhere, and there will be a record of the incident on the day it occurred. The human resources department or a company superior may be able to conduct an investigation and take action against the harasser. Even if nothing is done, you followed the right company procedures, which will make it difficult for the at-fault party's insurance company to try to limit your settlement.
  • Keep a record of the sexual harassment: Make sure to write down all of the vital details of the sexual harassment, including the date, time, location, people involved, and explanation of the incident. This can bring up negative emotions, but it can help to keep a record of the incident and keep your memory clear as weeks and months pass by.
  • Contact a government agency: If your company does nothing about sexual harassment and it continues, you could file a formal complaint with a government agency, such as the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). If the complaint is valid, the agency can issue a Notice of Right to Sue, allowing you to sue the harasser within 90 days of the notice being issued.
  • Work with a sexual harassment attorney: You will need a sexual harassment lawyer with in-depth knowledge of the legal process for this type of claim or lawsuit. They can assist you with the collection of evidence, negotiation with the insurance company, and a possible court case.

Sexual Harassment Damages and Consequences

Some often mistake sexual harassment as a somewhat harmless nuisance, but nothing could be further from the truth. Inappropriate sexual conduct in the workplace has serious consequences and can lead to real, tangible harm caused to employees targeted by this conduct. In many cases, sexual harassment does not result in direct physical injury to a person, but that does not mean that they do not suffer damages.

One of the most common consequences of sexual harassment at someone's job is a hostile work environment that can affect their performance or lead to them being unable to continue in that position. This causes direct financial losses through lost wages and lost career opportunities that can amount to substantial lost money. If you were sexually assaulted, you might have suffered serious physical injuries that have a steep medical cost.

In addition, there are intangible non-economic damages you might suffer from sexual harassment. Working in an environment where you do not feel safe can be very traumatizing and can lead to emotional pain and suffering. In many cases, harassment victims have to face sexual harassment for long periods of time, which wears down their mental health. In extreme cases of sexual harassment where assault is involved and even in less confrontational cases, the victim can suffer serious trauma that leads to the development of psychological disorders, such as PTSD, anxiety, or depression.

How a Sexual Harassment Lawyer Can Help You

Sexual harassment claims involve very complicated processes that a non-lawyer will not have the experience and knowledge to pursue. Hiring a sexual harassment lawyer is vital because they will have all the necessary experience and resources needed to pursue compensation for your sexual harassment damages.

The insurance company covering the defendant will have immense resources they can use to try to limit your potential settlement. Insurers often deny or greatly devalue claims in order to keep their profits up. A sexual harassment attorney can combat these methods and prove the at-fault party's liability through tangible evidence. They can use their resources and legal skill to collect this evidence and work with you to pursue fair compensation for the damages you suffered.

Contact Dolman Law Group for Help With Your Sexual Harassment in the Workplace Claim

You do not have to face the claims process for sexual harassment alone, while you also have to deal with the emotional trauma associated with harassment from an employer or co-worker. The sexual harassment lawyers at Dolman Law Group have several decades of combined legal experience helping Florida victims of sexual harassment in the workplace.

We offer personalized attention, and we'll create a plan for pursuing compensation molded around your specific case and not a template used for all clients. We have a "quality over quantity" edict, which means we work with fewer clients to ensure we offer the most engaged, committed legal counsel possible to help you pursue compensation for sexual harassment damages.

If you or a loved one have been sexually harassed or assaulted in the workplace, do not hesitate to contact Dolman Law Group for a free consultation and case review. The skilled lawyers at our law firm have the expertise you will need to secure the settlement you deserve, whether it's sexual harassment, sexual abuse, or even child sexual abuse. Contact us by calling (727) 451-6900 or reach out through our online contact page.

Dolman Law Group Accident Injury Lawyers, PA
800 N Belcher Rd
Clearwater, FL 33765
(727) 451-6900


Matthew Dolman

Personal Injury Lawyer

This article was written and reviewed by Matthew Dolman. Matt has been a practicing civil trial, personal injury, products liability, and mass tort lawyer since 2004. He has successfully fought for more than 11,000 injured clients and acted as lead counsel in more than 1,000 lawsuits. Always on the cutting edge of personal injury law, Matt is actively engaged in complex legal matters, including Suboxone, AFFF, and Ozempic lawsuits.  Matt is a lifetime member of the Million Dollar Advocates Forum and Multi-Million Dollar Advocates Forum for resolving individual cases in excess of $1 million and $2 million, respectively. He has also been selected by his colleagues as a Florida Superlawyer and as a member of Florida’s Legal Elite on multiple occasions. Further, Matt has been quoted in the media numerous times and is a sought-after speaker on a variety of legal issues and topics.

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