Sexual Harassment

Sexual harassment is NEVER acceptable. Have you ever felt uncomfortable in your workplace? Was it because of a colleague’s inappropriate behavior towards you or another colleague?

Sexual harassment occurs when someone is subjected to unwanted sexual advances, petitioned for sexual favors, or physically or verbally abused. Harassment doesn’t have to be of a sexual nature – it can include offensive remarks about a person’s sex. For example, you could be guilty of harassing a man if you make offensive comments about men in general. Simple teasing or offhand comments might be allowed, but harassment may be illegal when it creates a hostile or offensive work environment. It’s important that you recognize and understand sexual harassment, so that you can help to maintain a happy work environment, free from hostility and discomfort.

What Constitutes Sexual Harassment?

Sexual harassment is defined as any unwanted verbal or physical advance, sexually explicit or derogatory statement, or sexually discriminatory remark that is offensive or objectionable to the recipient, or which interferes with his or her job performance. Although many sexual harassment cases are brought by female plaintiffs alleging conduct by a male colleague or supervisor, such claims can also involve harassment of male employees by female supervisors or colleagues, same sex harassment, or claims that the environment was hostile for male and female employees alike.

The conduct need not consist solely of lewd acts, sexual innuendos, or sexual advances. It is enough that the conduct, whether blatant or subtle, discriminates against a person on the basis of his or her gender/sex.

Types of Sexual Harassment

Offering employment benefits in exchange for sexual favors, descriptions of people, commentary on bodies, sexually degrading words used to describe people, jokes, name calling, repeatedly asking someone on a date when they have said they are not interested, whistling, or catcalling.

Unwanted or offensive emails, texting, websites, blog posts, or other social media; displaying suggestive objects.

Sexual Harassment Guidelines

“I was new to my team and heard people making lewd comments about my sexuality. Could this be considered sexual harassment?”

Sexual harassment doesn’t necessarily mean a sexual advance. Comments about sexuality can be considered sexual harassment.

“I can’t be a victim of sexual harassment because I’m a man, right?”

Anyone in the workplace can be the victim or harasser, regardless of gender.

“I don’t know what makes a hostile working environment; could mine be considered hostile?”

Oftentimes, employees believe that a bad boss, a rude colleague, a lack of perks, or an unpleasant work environment is “hostile.” The reality is that in order for a workplace to be considered hostile, certain legal criteria must be met. Such criteria include:

  • whether the conduct was unwelcome;
  • whether such conduct was based on a protected class;
  • whether such conduct was so severe or pervasive as to alter the conditions of the victim’s employment and create an abusive work environment.

“What type of harassment is Quid Pro Quo?”

Quid pro quo sexual harassment typically involves a person in authority requesting sexual favors in return for a positive employment action. This is never acceptable behavior.


Recently I’ve had a few disagreements in work meetings with Jose. I have the distinct impression that Jose just straight up, doesn’t like me. It’s getting awkward to the point that our work relationship is really strained. And now he’s spreading rumors about my sexuality which I find upsetting. Punnavith and Jose are on the same team but don’t get along. Recently Jose has spread rumors about Punnavith’s sexuality. Punnavith asks you if this might be considered sexual harassment.

What two things should you say to him?

  • Jose’s comments constitute sexual harassment and need to be addressed.
  • Jose is only venting his frustrations to his colleagues. Jose’s attempts to spread rumors are petty and mean, but they don’t constitute sexual harassment.
  • As long as Punnavith doesn’t overhear the comments, what Jose is doing is within the law. If he hears, and is offended, then Jose would be guilty of sexual harassment.
  • Jose’s comments could create a hostile working environment and lead to a claim being made against the company.

Thanks for helping Punnavith

Jose’s comments constitute sexual harassment and could create a hostile working environment.

Remember, offensive comments about a person’s sexuality are harassment, even if the victim doesn’t hear.

You should always report such incidents.

Dave, my ex, applied for a promotion but didn’t get it. I made the decision and chose the best candidate but now Dave thinks that he’s been the victim of sexual harassment because we’d previously had a relationship.

Dave applied for a promotion and was unsuccessful. Kelly made the decision. Kelly and Dave dated in the past.

Kelly provided documented reasons for her choice, but Dave feels that Kelly didn’t appoint him because of their personal history. He feels that he is a victim of sexual harassment.

Kelly asks you if you think Dave has a case. What two things would you tell her?

  • As long as she is basing her decision solely on the candidates’ qualifications and experience, Dave doesn’t have a case.
  •  This could be construed as Kelly getting revenge on Dave for ending their relationship.
  •  This is an example of retaliation. She is clearly letting her emotions cloud her judgment.
  •  She is entitled to choose the best candidate.

Thanks for helping Kelly

Kelly is under no obligation to appoint Dave and is only selecting the best candidate for the department.
If Kelly can show solid reasons for not appointing Dave, then he does not have a case for sexual harassment.

Sure, Steve and I work closely, and we get on well. But recently he’s started sending me flirtatious emails. I like Steve, but not in that way, and I don’t want to hurt his feelings.
Ben keeps receiving flirty emails and sticky notes from his colleague Steve. Ben does not want to say anything to Steve that might hurt his feelings, but he is very uncomfortable with Steve’s actions. Ben asks you if you think Steve may be harassing him.

What two things would you say?

  •  Steve’s actions could constitute harassment because the conduct is unwelcome.
  •  Steve’s actions could constitute harassment because they have unreasonably interfered with Ben’s work.
  •  Steve’s actions cannot constitute harassment because men cannot sexually harass other men.
  •  Steve’s actions cannot constitute harassment because Steve is just joking around.

Thanks for helping Ben

Steve’s actions could constitute harassment because the conduct is unwelcome and it has unreasonably interfered with Ben’s work.
You should always report such incidents.

What Should Ben Do?

One day at work, Ben overhears his colleague Marvin talking with another colleague, Julia. Marvin makes some sexually explicit and suggestive comments to Julia and Ben can clearly see that this has made Julia uncomfortable.

What should Ben do?

  • Intervene in the conversation and point out to Marvin that not only are his sexually explicit and suggestive comments making Julia uncomfortable, they are also a form of sexual harassment, as well as forbidden by company policy and may also be unlawful.
  • Nothing. It’s not his place to interfere in a conversation between two other colleagues. If Julia is uncomfortable with Marvin’s actions, she should report him to the appropriate department.
  • Nothing for the moment, but if he witnesses Marvin harassing Julia again, or making sexually explicit and suggestive comments to any other female colleagues, he should email HR with a summary of what he’s witnessed.

Thanks for helping Ben

In a situation like this, we encourage you to intervene and call out the sexual harassment, if you are comfortable doing so. This is called “bystander intervention” and you can find out more about bystander intervention by contacting HR.
If you are not comfortable intervening, you should report the harassment immediately to your manager, or to the appropriate department. If you are not sure of the appropriate reporting channels.

I’ve worked with Otto on a ton of projects that go back a couple of years. Yesterday at lunch, he came up behind me and started rubbing my shoulders and it’s not the first time either. I don’t think he means to harass me, but it feels creepy.
During lunch, Aung told you that Otto comes up behind her and rubs her shoulders on a regular basis, often saying, “You’re so tense; let me help you relax.”
Aung says, “I don’t think Otto’s harassing me; I just think he’s creepy. Don’t say anything to anyone.”

Identify the two actions Aung should take.

  • Aung should report Otto’s conduct.
  • Aung should ask Otto to stop massaging her shoulders and making such comments, if she is comfortable doing so
  •  Aung should do nothing because she doesn’t think Otto is harassing her.
  • Aung should write an anonymous note to Otto telling him he’s a harasser.

Thanks for helping Aung

Otto’s conduct may be considered harassment if it is unwelcomed and it makes Aung uncomfortable.

Remember, it’s important that you:

  • Can identify sexual harassment in the workplace.
  • Know what to do when you witness or experience it.

This content is an extract from the Anti Harassment Training program.

Download our Sexual Harassment booklet.
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