Sexual Harassment: What It Is, What to Do If It Happens to You

Sexual Harassment: What It Is, What to Do If It Happens to You
Adobe Stock
Medically Reviewed By:
Mark Arredondo, M.D.

Sexual harassment can happen to anyone, but what should you do if it happens to you?

Sexual harassment affects millions of people nationwide, including one in three women and about one in nine men in public spaces. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says the problem is likely underreported and may affect even more people.

According to the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN), examples of sexual harassment in the workplace include:

  • Requesting sexual favors

  • Tying employment or career advancement to sexual favors

  • Sexually charged verbal harassment

  • Unwelcome sexual advances, touching or physical contact

  • Unwelcome sexually explicit text messages, emails or photos

  • Physical sexual assault

  • Exposing oneself to others

  • Performing sexual acts on oneself in front of others

To help you better understand sexual harassment, experts discuss the different types, if it’s a crime and how employers can help prevent it. You’ll also learn what steps you can take if you’re being sexually harassed at work.

What is sexual harassment?

The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) gives the following sexual harassment definition:

  • Physical or verbal harassment of a sexual nature

  • Unwelcome sexual advances

  • Requests for sexual favors

Legal Voice notes that sexual harassment can occur between people of the same or different genders, and it can also happen in the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community.

“Sexual harassment is pervasive,” Stanford University sociologist Marianne Cooper explained in a Lean In TEDx Talk. “There is no industry or institution that is immune to it.”

Types of sexual harassment

According to the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM), the EEOC defines the following two types of sexual harassment:

Quid pro quo

Quid pro quo harassment is carried out by a person in a position of authority. It involves a demand by the perpetrator for sexual favors in exchange for workplace favors, such as a raise or promotion.

One example of quid pro quo harassment is when a manager threatens to fire an employee if they don’t agree to have sex with them.

Hostile environment harassment

In contrast to quid pro quo harassment, hostile environment harassment can be committed by anyone at a workplace, or between staff and customers. It happens when verbal or physical sexual conduct has become so widespread and intense that it’s negatively impacting the work environment and a person’s job performance.

The SHRM notes that hostile environment harassment can include inappropriate sexual jokes, comments or touch; public displays of inappropriate photos; or pressure to become involved in a relationship with someone you work with.

Is sexual harassment a crime?

Sexual harassment typically only violates civil law, says RAINN. However, it may be considered a crime if an actual criminal law is broken during your harassment, such as if you’ve been sexually assaulted.

How may employers take steps to help prevent sexual harassment in the workplace?

“When leaders take this issue seriously, when they promptly investigate complaints, when they make sure that the perpetrator faces consequences…sexual harassment is less likely to happen,” Cooper said.

The EEOC suggests several steps you can take as an employer to help prevent sexual harassment, including:

  • Communicating to employees that sexual harassment is prohibited and that they won’t face negative consequences for reporting it

  • Explaining who employees should contact about harassment questions, concerns and complaints

  • Providing supervisors and managers with the tools and responsibility for addressing, stopping and preventing sexual harassment

  • Investigating harassment claims promptly

What steps should you take if you’re being sexually harassed at work?

Equal Rights Advocates (ERA) and the National Partnership for Women & Families recommend the following actions to help protect your rights if you’re being sexually harassed:

  • Communicate with your harasser that you want them to stop

  • Familiarize yourself with your workplace sexual harassment policy and report the harassment to the appropriate internal contact

  • Document everything in writing

  • Contact the EEOC local field office to learn what your rights are and how you can file a complaint

  • For union members, contact your union about filing a grievance

  • Contact a lawyer to discuss your legal options

How should you document sexual harassment?

According to the ERA and Employment Law Help, documentation should include any incidents of harassment, conversations with the harasser, how you felt during and after the harassment, when and how you reported the harassment, and any meetings or feedback received from your employer.

What happens when you file a sexual harassment lawsuit?

If you file a complaint with the EEOC or with your state’s Fair Employment Practices Agency and the EEOC finds there’s reasonable cause that discrimination occurred, they may either file a lawsuit on your behalf or issue you a Notice of Right to Sue.

The ERA says there are several types of compensation you can ask for in a lawsuit, including:

  • Compensation for physical pain and suffering, distress or lost wages

  • Punitive damages

  • Reinstatement to work if you were fired or forced to leave due to harassment

  • A change to your employer’s fair workplace practices

If you’d like to learn more, RAINN offers a number of supportive Sexual Harassment Resources.


U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: Fast Facts: Preventing Sexual Violence

U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission: Sexual Harassment

U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission: Policy Guidance on Current Issues of Sexual Harassment

U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission: How can I prevent harassment?

U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission: Fair Employment Practices Agencies (FEPAs) and Dual Filing

U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission: EEOC Field Offices

U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission: What You Can Expect After a Charge is Filed

RAINN: Sexual Harassment

RAINN: Sexual Harassment Resources

Legal Voice: Sexual Harassment at Work

Lean In TEDx Talk: The Power of Us: How We Stop Sexual Harassment

Equal Rights Advocates: Know Your Rights at Work: Sexual Harassment

National Partnership for Women & Families: Know Your Rights: Experiencing Sexual Harassment at Work

Employment Law Help: How to Document Sexual Harassment

Related Stories

No stories found.