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Blog>Guides>5 Signs of Sexual Harassment in a Hostile Work Environment

5 Signs of Sexual Harassment in a Hostile Work Environment

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  • Discover the two main types of sexual harassment

  • Learn what you can do in this problematic situation

  • Empower yourself in your professional environment


Sexual harassment is a type of harassment or unwelcome behavior that targets the victim based on their sex. This type of harassment can take a variety of different forms, including requests for sexual favors, repeated sexual advances, or physical harassment.

In some situations, sexual harassment can create a hostile work environment. This type of harassment can target all genders. It can also occur between co-workers, a supervisor and subordinate, or can originate from a client or customer. This activity is illegal, and you can report it to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).

We will explore what to know about and how to navigate these situations.

What Is Hostile Work Environment Sexual Harassment?

The right to work in an environment without worrying about sexual harassment or a hostile work environment is defined by law. The EEOC states clearly that:

“It is unlawful to harass a person (an applicant or an employee) because of that person’s sex. Harassment can include “sexual harassment” or unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical harassment of a sexual nature.”

The commission further explains that this harassment does not have to take on a sexual nature directly. Offensive remarks about a particular sex are also not allowed under the law.

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act also further protects people from negative treatment because of their sex. Specifically, the Act says that employees and job applicants are protected from discrimination based on factors, including their sex.

When harassing conduct of a sexual nature creates a hostile work environment, repeated harassment creates a situation where the victim feels uncomfortable. The environment has begun to impact their ability to do their job effectively. It is also worth noting that this type of harassment can have a ripple effect, affecting the working environment of others in addition to the victim(s).

If you currently find yourself in a situation where you have experienced or witnessed sexual harassment, we will walk you through what to do about the situation.

How Is Hostile Work Environment Sexual Harassment Different from Quid Pro Quo Harassment?

To fully understand how sexual harassment can look in the work environment, it is worth noting that there are two main types: quid pro quo and hostile work environment.

In a hostile work environment, the victim will receive harassment that might look like:

  • Repeated, unwanted sexual advances

  • Lewd comments or jokes

  • Demeaning comments or gestures

  • Slurs and innuendo

  • Sharing explicit pictures or other content

In quid pro quo sexual harassment, however, the victim receives sexual demands in exchange for certain employment benefits or as a condition of employment. The victim might be offered the chance to avoid negative repercussions such as:

  • Cut shifts

  • Termination

  • Demotions

The victim might also receive demands in exchange for favorable situations such as:

  • Promotions

  • Bonuses

  • Raises

  • Better work reviews

Both the quid pro quo and the hostile work environment situations constitute sexual harassment, and can cause serious problems and unwanted stress for the victims. Employers and supervisors need to address these abusive work environments immediately.

5 Signs of Sexual Harassment in the Workplace

If you find that someone at work has begun engaging in these types of unwanted behaviors, recognize it immediately. Knowing how to identify problematic behavior, label it, and then take steps to stop it can go a long way in creating a peaceful and safe work environment.

Unwanted Physical Contact

Unwanted physical contact can take various forms. Repeatedly forcing hugs on someone who is clearly trying to avoid physical contact can be sexual harassment. This undesirable physical conduct can also look like rubbing, touching, or outright groping. A professional might experience this type of harassment, for example, if someone tries to rub their knee under the table while speaking with them. This type of offensive conduct can make people feel uncomfortable and vulnerable.

Sexualized Language, Jokes, or Images

Sexual harassment can also include sexualized language, sexual jokes, or images. Sharing pictures of sexually explicit material is a clear form of sexual harassment. The perpetrator might also fall under this category if they make jokes about a particular gender, particularly jokes of a sexual nature. Similarly, using terms and language that fall under the sexual and offensive categories can contribute further to the hostile work environment.

Inappropriate Behavior Based on Gender, Gender Identity, or Sexual Orientation

In addition to the situations listed above, you might encounter other types of harassment based on gender, gender identity, or sexual orientation. For example, someone making derogatory comments about gender or sexual orientation at the office could contribute to a hostile work environment. Similarly, keeping people with a particular identity isolated in their positions instead of letting them interact with the public can be an expression of employment discrimination.

The Behavior Disrupts Work Performance or the Ability to Move Forward in One's Career

For the behavior in question to legally qualify as a hostile work environment, it has to be severe enough that it interferes with your ability to work. In other words, a colleague who makes a rude joke might deserve to receive a harsh reprimand from HR, but it would not qualify as creating a hostile work environment.

Instead, the harassing behavior has to be consistent and severe enough that the victim feels they cannot successfully complete their work and are unsafe coming to work. Suppose you have questions about whether or not a particular behavior qualifies. In that case, it may be a good idea to reach out to a law firm specializing in this type of situation to get their opinion.

Retaliation Against Employees Who Report Sexual Harassment

For many people considering making a report against their harasser, retaliation is the first concern that springs to mind. The threat of retaliation can cause many people to hesitate to make a complaint against someone else at work. If that retaliation comes in the form of firing or demotions, it can also have significant and immediate consequences.

Retaliation can also escalate the behavior. Suppose the predator feels wronged by the victim for the complaint made. In that case, they might worsen the behavior, try to isolate the victim, or otherwise further contribute to the hostile work environment.

It is important to note that if you make a sexual harassment claim, federal law protects you from retaliation. In other words, if you make a hostile work environment claim against a supervisor, he finds out and eliminates all of your shifts, you have a clear case of retaliation. You may be able to take legal action after speaking with a lawyer.

By also making retaliation illegal, the EEOC works to minimize these occurrences. If it should happen to you, document it — now you have even more material for a lawsuit against your employer. To make sure you can secure this evidence, it may be a good idea to document your entire complaint process. Immediately after filing a complaint with HR, ask for documentation of your conversation so you have a record of what was said. Record the dates and events that occurred because of the retaliation following the conversion to establish the timeline.

What to Do if You’re in a Hostile Work Environment

If you find yourself in an environment where you experience or witness sexual harassment, you can take action to improve the situation. Every person deserves to work in an environment where they feel safe and do not encounter harassment. Fortunately, since there are laws against these behaviors in the United States, you have concrete steps you can take. We will walk you through the process to take to put a stop to this harassing conduct.

Speak First With the Offender

Your first step will be to speak with the person who has been harassing you. You want them to know clearly that you find their behavior inappropriate and that you will not tolerate it. In some situations, the offender will not realize the level of distress caused by the behavior, and this alone will cause the behavior to stop.

If you do not feel safe or comfortable confronting the person alone, ask for someone from Human Resources to help navigate the situation.

Talk to Your Employer

If your initial attempt to put the employee on notice has not ended the problem, you will want to escalate the issue. Speak with your supervisor or employer and a representative from HR. This will serve multiple purposes. First, it will let them know about the problem so they can begin to take action to correct it. For example, they may address the problem directly with the harassing employee and let them know that they may take employment action, including firing the offender, for their behavior.

Secondly, it ensures that your workplace knows about the problem and you have given them the chance to correct the issue. Often, harassment occurs in secret, which means others may not realize what is happening. If you decide to bring a suit against the workplace later on for a hostile work environment, failure to satisfy this step will mean that your employer will generally not be found liable because they can reasonably claim that they did not know.

When you approach this meeting, know what specifically your employee handbook outlines. Produce examples of the behavior you have experienced and articulate how it has broken these regulations as well as the law. If you have any evidence, such as emails or text messages, you can bring these as well.

File a Complaint With the EEOC

If your work does not take sufficient measures to address the issue, you should then file a complaint with the EEOC. However, to complete this process successfully, you must meet certain criteria with your claim. You will likely want to seek legal advice regarding the best way to proceed and how to prove that this was qualifying sexual harassment and not just isolated incidents. Sexual harassment attorneys who specialize in this field can help sort through your evidence and experiences to see if there’s a case. They can also help you discover if any additional state laws can help you.

Make sure you fully understand these conditions to file your claim and receive your desired outcome effectively.

  • The harassment has to be based on the sex of the victim. However, keep in mind that the sex of the perpetrator does not matter. Sexual harassment can occur between members of the same sex or opposite sex.

  • The harassment has to occur repeatedly to create a hostile work environment.

  • There has to be a relationship between the victim and the harasser that leaves the employer liable.

  • The harassment must be unwelcome and from a supervisor, co-worker, or someone connected to the business, such as a client or a vendor.

You need to prove these different points with evidence to have a successful claim. Therefore, the more evidence you can gather that points to these different areas, the better off you will be with your claim.

Don’t Stay in a Hostile Work Environment, Let Joblist Help

No reasonable person wants to work in a hostile work environment. If you have found yourself the victim of sexual harassment, you need to care for yourself. In many situations, you will want to find a new position where you can feel secure.

Fortunately, it has never been easier to job search than with Joblist. Get started with the process on our quiz page. This quiz helps us better understand precisely what you want to find so that we can deliver a customized list of job openings directly to you. Find your dream job with us right now.

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