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The Most Common Forms of Sexual Harassment in the Workplace


Knowing what sexual harassment looks like is the first step in preventing it from taking place. Generally speaking, sexual harassment falls into two categories: quid pro quo harassment and hostile work environment harassment.  We look at both in detail below and then explore how to prevent them from occurring using sexual harassment training in the workplace and other safeguards.

Quid Pro Quo Harassment
This is the form of sexual harassment you’re most likely to see on TV or in the movies. When people think of classic sexual harassment, they tend to think of this – a superior threatening an employee with negative repercussions if the employee doesn’t provide sexual favors. Of course, there are many variations on the theme. The repercussions and even the demands may not be directly stated. What defines the harassment ultimately is that the employee is required to endure harassing behavior in order to keep his/her job or job benefits or avoid other negative consequences at work. Examples may include:
  • A manager making direct demands for sexual favors while suggesting it is in the employee’s best interest to comply
  • A manager asking to meet an employee outside of work, making romantic overtures during the meeting, and then discussing the job security the employee would enjoy by being in a relationship with the manager
  • A manager placing a hand on an employee’s knee during a one-on-one meeting and suggesting the employee’s performance reviews would go better if the employee were “friendlier”
  • A manager demoting an employee who rebuked the manager’s sexual innuendos at a company party
Hostile Work Environment
Although not as instantly recognizable to the popular mind as quid pro quo harassment, hostile work environment harassment casts a much larger net and encompasses many more forms of misconduct. This type of harassment is marked by the creation of a work environment that is abusive, hostile, or intimidating. To qualify as a hostile work environment, the harassment must be severe, pervasive, and reasonably offensive.
Examples of hostile work environment sexual harassment may include:
  • A co-worker making frequent sexual remarks towards an employee
  • A co-worker repeatedly touching an employee in an unwelcome manner
  • An employee regularly receiving sexually explicit e-mails from a co-worker
  • A co-worker making catcalls every time an employee walks by
  • A co-worker constantly inquiring about an employee’s sex life or sexual history
  • A co-worker pestering an employee for a date or sexual encounter
Other Forms of Harassment
It’s important to remember that sexual harassment is just one type of illegal harassment. For harassment to be considered unlawful, it must be based on a protected characteristic. These characteristics have been determined by US employment law and have been expanded by many state laws.
The full list of federally protected characteristics include age (40 years or older), color, genetic information, sex, disability, national origin, race, religion (or lack thereof), pregnancy, and veteran status. State laws often add protections for marital status and sexual orientation, among others. Comprehensive workplace harassment training should touch on all protected characteristics.
 Preventing Harassment
Preventing harassment of all types within an organization requires a focus on training, awareness, and effective processes to handle complaints.
  • Training: Best practice recommends regular training for all employees on preventing workplace harassment and discrimination. Conducting training every two years is a good standard, and in California this is the law for supervisors. In years when full training is not being provided, refresher training is recommended in order to keep information fresh in employees’ minds.
  • Awareness: In addition to training, it is important for organizations to foster awareness of harassment through other means, such as posters, videos, and brochures. These materials should help employees identify workplace harassment as well as inform employees who they should contact to report or discuss harassment allegations. Typically, this is a supervisor, the human resources department, or the organization’s ethics and compliance hotline.
  • Process for Handling Complaints: Organizations should ensure they have clear and efficient processes in place for handling harassment complaints. Every organization should establish and promote the appropriate channels for reporting allegations (supervisors, HR, whistleblower hotline), and the procedures for investigating and resolving complaints should be consistent across all channels. How such investigations are conducted, what corrective actions may take place, what kind of relief victims may receive, what degree of confidentiality complainants can expect, and how retaliation will be prevented and addressed – these are all aspects of the process that every organization should detail in its policies, embrace consistently in its actions, and share fully with its employees.
By addressing these three areas, an organization will find itself well on its way to maintaining a robust harassment prevention program.
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