How to Combat Sexual Harassment in the Workplace

Sexual harassment in the workplace can come in different forms. It can come from your boss, supervisor, clients, and your other coworker.

Given that there is still a number of sexual harassment case that are unreported and undetected, we shed some light on this problem as well as discuss some of the laws that can protect you and what are the steps that you should take should you ever experience it.

Numbers and Statistics

First, let us look at the numbers and shed some light on what may seem to be a never-ending problem in the workplace.

Despite the laws and provisions passed over the years, many worker in the United States still experience unlawful sexual harassment in their workplace. In fact, a report published by the Government Accountability Office (GOA) stated that only 6 percent of those who experience it report it.

This means that almost all employees who have been harassed in their workplace choose or are forced not to report it. There have been some cases where employees are too scared to report it because of fear of retaliation.

In government agencies alone, only 11 percent managed to file formal sexual harassment complaints. Then, by all means, most people, even the ones working in the corporate setting, had to sit through and suffer unwanted sexual advances from their colleagues.

The Pew Research Center estimated back in 2017 the prevalence rate for both men and women to experience harassment, which is 7 percent and 22 percent respectively.

As for gender and age, here are a few things that the GOA found:

In terms of gender, women working in the United States are 9 percent more likely to report sexual harassment in the workplace than men. One of the reasons that contribute to this is because workplace harassment commonly involves male harassers and female targets.

NIOSH survey, on the other hand, found that 29 years old and under have experienced higher rates of sexual harassment in their workplace. In addition to that, unwelcome sexual advance is more likely to happen in male-dominated setting.

So with all that said, it is no wonder why sexual harassment seems like a never-ending problem in the workplace.

Harassment in the workplace

The Merit Systems Protection Board (MSPB) stated that these 12 behaviors that constitute sexual harassment

Gender harassment

  • Derogatory or unprofessional terms related to sex or gender
  • Unwelcome sexual teasing, jokes, comments, or questions
  • Exposure to sexually oriented material (e.g., photos, videos, written material)
  • Exposure to sexually-oriented conversations

Unwanted sexual attention

  • Unwelcome invasion of personal space (e.g., touching, crowding, leaning over)
  • Unwelcome communications (e.g., emails, phone calls, notes, text messages, social media contacts) of a sexual nature
  • Unwelcome sexually suggestive looks or gestures

Sexual coercion

  • Offer of preferential treatment in the workplace in exchange for sexual favors (quid pro quo)
  • Pressure for sexual favor
  • Pressure for dates
  • Stalking (e.g., unwanted physical or electronic intrusion into one’s personal life)
  • Sexual assault or attempted sexual assault

According to the report by MSPB, employees experience gender harassment by 10 percent, unwanted sexual attention by 9 percent, and sexual coercion by 3 percent.

It is worth pointing out that there might be other behavior that constitutes sexual harassment that is not included in the list above.

In the early years, men and women are divided on which behavior constitutes sexual harassment. But, it is worth noting that as time progresses, both men and women today now have a consensus and agreement that most of the behaviors listed above do constitute sexual harassment.

Because of this, these behaviors are more likely to be avoided, mitigated, and detected earlier. Having a consensus would help enable employers and employees to make their work environment a lot safer.

Victim and Accused

As mentioned earlier, some victims chose or force not to report. We like to emphasize the two words “chose” and “force.”

Remember that in the case of sexual harassment, between the victim and the accused, there is always one party who is in a much more advantageous position.

Given that there are power dynamics and politics at play in every workplace setting, it is very common that the accused have more power over their victims.

For this reason, victims would rather sit silently and suffer rather than go up against someone whose more powerful or in a much higher position.

Despite having several retaliation protection laws today, victims are still afraid that the accused might retaliate so they are forced to endure all the harassment that they are experiencing. Examples of retaliation are firing, demotion, exclusion in the workplace, and so on. There are also other subtle action that may not technically constitute as retaliation but can make the victim a lot less comfortable to work for the company anymore.

In fact, there are numbers to prove why this fear amongst victims is valid. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) reported that there is a 52 percent increase in allegations of retaliation in the fiscal year of 2018.

Though it is not conclusive that these numbers specifically stem from prior sexual misconduct and harassment charges, it is powerful enough to make the victims crouch down in fear and for others to turn a blind eye to harassment in their workplace.

Other than power dynamics and office politics, there is also external pressure that pushes victims to mask what they are experiencing and chose not to report it.

For example, an attorney-adviser in the office of legal counsel for the EEOC said to the Washington Post that while sexual harassment in the workplace is underreported, it is much lower for the cases of male victims. There is still a stigma when it comes to men being a victim of sexual harassment. To that end, many male victims chose not to report it in fear of being shunned.

So with all things into consideration, you should not take sexual harassment lightly and view it as a one-dimensional problem only.

It is much more complicated and there are a lot of factors at play such as power dynamics, office politics, social stigma, and fear of retaliation and being excluded in the workplace.

Steps to take

Several government agencies have published their own guidelines as well as a list of things to do should you ever experience sexual harassment in your workplace.

Here is a simplified version of the things you should do.

Be direct and tell the person

If you ever feel uncomfortable with your coworkers’ actions towards you, then the very first thing that you should do is to tell them directly. Let them know that they are making you uncomfortable and tell them to stop immediately.

Tell your supervisor or employer

It is completely acceptable to feel uncomfortable to tell your harasser directly to stop. In this case, your best option is to report them to the human resources or your supervisor. This way, they can offer immediate action and reprimand your coworker if necessary.

Keep in mind that there are laws that can protect you from retaliation. So you should not be afraid to report, participate in any harassment investigation, and file a lawsuit against your coworker when necessary.

On that note, be sure to keep a paper trail and keep the written reports that you file so that you can follow up if there is no action or the harassment still does not stop.

File a complaint with the state/federal government agency

If your employer is your harasser, then the next best thing to do is to report them to the relevant government agency.

For example, if you reside in North Dakota, you should file your complaint within 300 days from the last date of harm to the North Dakota Department of Labor and Human Rights according to their state law. Depending on where you work or your state’s civil rights division, the specific time limits for filing charges may vary from state to state.

Remember that all employees can file a sexual harassment complaint to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). Here are the contact details of the EEOC where you can inquire about the charge filing process:

  • 1-800-669-4000
  • 1-800-669-6820 (TTY for Deaf/Hard of Hearing callers only)
  • 1-844-234-5122 (ASL Video Phone for Deaf/Hard of Hearing callers only)
  • info@eeoc.gov

Other Forms of Resolution

The Department of State suggested these other forms of resolution that you can pursue

Mediation

It is an informal way to settle a dispute between two parties. If your harasser is your coworker, then by all means, he/she has no choice but to obliged by the Department’s policy to send a representative to the table. These representatives are trained mediators who would facilitate the communication between you and your coworker.

Grievances

This is specifically for civil servants who cannot bring their grievances on Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) matters. They may only file a grievance on sexual harassment law if they are permitted by the governing collective bargaining agreement.

EEOC Process

As we have briefly mentioned earlier, all employees can file a complaint to the EEO if they are working in the United States or US citizens working for the Department abroad. For more information, you can contact your EEO counselor to learn more.

Applications of the law

Sexual harassment in the workplace is illegal and a violation of our anti-discrimination and employment law. So if in case you are still hesitating to report your experience, just know that there are laws that would safeguard and protect you. You just need a legal professional who can help you navigate through all the nuances and tedious processes of these laws.

Code of Federal Regulations, Simplified Guidelines on Employment Discrimination Because of Sex

  • Harassment on the basis of sex is a violation of Section 703 of Title VII. Your harassers’ behavior towards you constitute sexual harassment when
    • submission to such abusive conduct is made either explicitly or implicitly a term or condition of an individual’s employment,
    • submission to or rejection of such offensive conduct by an individual is used as the basis for employment decisions affecting such individual, or
    • such conduct has the purpose or effect of unreasonably interfering with an individual’s work performance or creating an intimidating, hostile, or offensive working environment.
  • the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) would be the one to determine whether your harassers’ sexual conduct constitutes sexual harassment or not
  • your employer has some sort of accountability for every sexual harassment that happens in your workplace
  • if you experience harassment from a client or a non-employee, then your employer still has some accountability and they should still take appropriate corrective action
  • your employer has a responsibility to make a lot less hostile work environment by
    • affirmatively raising the subject of harassment
    • expressing strong disapproval
    •  developing appropriate sanctions
    • informing employees of their right to raise and how to raise the issue of harassment under Title VII
    • developing methods to sensitize all concerned
  • quid pro quo harassment should not be tolerated by your employer. an employer might face violation if they denied employees opportunities or benefits just because they turn down any sexual favors or advances.

Maintaining a Safe Workplace Environment

Several states laws have implemented several measures to avoid and mitigate sexual harassment in the workplace. For instance, Massachusetts requires employers with six or more employees to have a written policy against sexual harassment. It must specifically state that sexual harassment is illegal and retaliation for filing a complaint is unlawful.

As you may have noted from the previous section, federal law also vests some responsibility to employers when it comes to sexual harassment prevention. Every employer must strive to create a better workplace culture and make their employees’ work environment a lot safer. They are required by the law to take corrective action against sexual harassment that is happening in their workplace.         

Conclusion

All in all, though there are a lot of factors at play when it comes to workplace harassment, the key takeaway here is that there are laws that prove that sexual harassment is illegal and there are regulations that can protect you from retaliation.

That said, we highly encourage you to not let your guard down and report your harasser immediately.

Because at the end of the day, it is not up to them to decide whether their action is making you uncomfortable or not. That is for you to decide.

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