Workplace sexual harassment can happen to anyone, but it’s possible to create a better outcome for you and your career.
In the United States and many other countries, workplace sexual harassment and assault are defined legally. It can show up as:
- Harassment within a hostile work environment. This can take the form of sexist comments or jokes, unwanted attention or physical contact, or behavior that discriminates based on gender or sex.
- Quid pro quo (aka “this for that”) harassment. This happens when a co-worker or superior asks an employee to perform a sexual act to get advancement like promotions, raises, or special treatment.
If you’re dealing with sexual harassment in your workplace, it can feel like a lot to untangle between how it’s impacting you, your company’s policies, and any legal implications. Addressing it bit by bit can help you work toward a resolution you’re happy with.
People who experience workplace sexual harassment the most are often underrepresented in their professional environment. For example, women may experience more sex-based harassment if they’re a minority in their workplace.
Some research suggests men could be less likely to report being harassed due to stigma or fear that talking about it at all could bring blame onto them. About 1 in 3 men may experience workplace sexual harassment.
People who are gender nonconforming may also experience more harassment at work, especially if their workplace culture reinforces traditional gender roles. Racism and ageism can also feed into sexual harassment.
A few psychological factors contribute to sexual harassment and assault in the workplace. These factors don’t excuse the behavior, but they can help explain behind the scenes.
Older theories proposed that desire for sexual gratification drove most workplace harassment. Current theories focus instead on power dynamics and how your culture understands sex and gender.
People with more power in their workplace, for example, may be more likely to harass or assault someone with less institutional power.
Research from 2018 also points out workplace harassment is based on both situational and personal factors:
- Situational factors cover the place where the harassment happens: where you work. This can include how much your workplace tolerates harassment, sexual objectification, and the enforcement of gender roles.
- Personal factors are specific traits in the person doing the harassment. These can include personality traits like low empathy and narcissistic tendencies as well as negative attitudes about the sex or gender of others.
Workplace sexual harassment often involves people with more power assaulting colleagues with less status, but it doesn’t always happen this way. Even when someone with less power harasses someone with more, the wish to have power over another is often a key reason.
A workplace that turns a blind eye to harassment — or even blames those who experience and report it — is likely to be negatively impacted in other ways, like the following.
Poorer employee health
Higher turnover rates
When interviewing for a new job, you might ask about the turnover rate of the workplace since a high turnover rate can be a red flag of a toxic work environment.
Sexual harassment is known to contribute to higher employee turnover.
Burnout is strongly connected with apathy and lower productivity and can cause someone to leave their job or the workforce if it isn’t addressed early on.
A 2019 survey found a strong connection between workplace sexual harassment and higher rates of burnout in female doctors. In particular, some of the sexual harassment connected to burnout included:
- being treated poorly due to sex or gender
- not being seen as or treated like a doctor due to gender
- getting sexist comments from coworkers
Research from 2019 on sexual harassment and healthcare workers emphasizes that these experiences can cause harm to the organization they take place in and the person who is harassed or assaulted.
Healthcare settings with higher rates of sexual harassment also had:
- more financial difficulties
- more conflict among employees
- less teamwork
It’s understandable to feel stressed and conflicted about handling sexual harassment at work. In some workplaces, reporting may feel risky. Ignoring the harassment may leave the door open for more, potentially worse, treatment.
Seeing it happen to a co-worker can also leave you wondering whether it’s your place to step in, report it, or support your co-worker in another way.
When you’ve experienced harassment
If you’ve been sexually harassed, you might feel like downplaying it for fear of creating more workplace conflict.
In reality, you have every right to stand up for yourself. It can help to remember that the person who harassed you created a hostile work environment, and by addressing it, you might be helping make your work environment less hostile.
How you handle sexual harassment can depend on a few factors, like:
- The type of harassment. You might handle a one-time comment differently than repeated and unwanted sexual advances, for example.
- Your work culture. You know best what level of support you’re likely to get if you choose to involve others. Knowing whether you’re more likely to be supported or ignored can help you decide whether to seek help within your workplace.
- How it’s impacting you. There’s no single way to feel when experiencing sexual harassment at work, although it’s not uncommon to feel different levels of dread and shame. Tuning in to how it’s affected you can affirm that what happened wasn’t OK and might help you express what happened to a safe, supportive person.
Here are some steps you can take if you’ve been sexually harassed at work:
- Address the person directly. If it’s safe to do so, you can tell the person that their attention, comment, or “joke” was unwelcome or hurtful. How they respond can help you decide whether you want to take additional steps.
- Report it. If you weren’t able to resolve the problem with the person directly, or if it wasn’t safe to, reporting the incident according to your workplace policy is another option. This could include involving human resources or your supervisor.
- Contact law enforcement. If a co-worker has been endangering your safety through stalking or sexual assault, it’s often a good idea to involve your local authorities. This can depend on the level of trust and safety you have with your local law enforcement. Another option is to have a trustworthy support person contact them for you and stay by your side throughout the process.
- Document the incident. While you would ideally be taken seriously when reporting sexual harassment, sometimes having proof does help your case. Consider if it’s a good idea in your situation to gather what proof you can of the incident before you report it.
Depending on your own needs and the specifics of your situation, some of these actions might be more or less appropriate. Regardless of what happened, ensuring your safety from the time the harassment happens onward is the highest priority.
When a co-worker has been harassed or assaulted
Whether you witness it firsthand or a co-worker comes to you for guidance after the fact, it can help to know what steps you can take to support them:
- Ask them what they need. This can help you gauge whether they need someone to listen as they sort things out for themselves, or someone to take a more active role in backing them up.
- Redirect the conversation. If you’re present when verbal sexual harassment is happening, it might be appropriate to smoothly derail the current conversation and redirect it to another topic. Try to avoid drawing attention to the co-worker experiencing the harassment, since they might not want everyone’s attention on them.
- Confront the person doing the harassing. This is usually best done in a one-on-one setting with just you and the other person rather than in front of many co-workers. You can let them know how their comments may have come across and why it’s not OK.
- Offer support and resources. If your co-worker isn’t sure what to do about the harassment, you can help them brainstorm potential courses of action. Make sure to follow their lead, though — let them make the decisions, and allow yourself to be a listening ear rather than problem-solver if that’s what they need most in the moment.
As an employee, one of the best things you can do to prevent workplace sexual harassment is to help build a culture that doesn’t tolerate it. This can look like confronting it when it happens and believing co-workers who share their experience with you.
If you’re a leader in your workplace, it might fall on you to take meaningful steps toward prevention. Creating policies that consistently discourage harassment and address it when it happens is one of the best ways to reduce negative impacts on the workplace.
Research from 2018 suggests the following actions could help your workplace prevent sexual harassment and assault:
- Conduct trainings on recognizing and preventing sexual harassment in the workplace.
- Develop policies for reporting sexual harassment that give employees a clear idea of what options are available to them and who they can talk to in order to report it.
- Use anonymous surveys to gauge how employees feel about the workplace environment — is it hostile, or do they feel confident that sexual harassment won’t be tolerated?
- Make sure any rules or policies for handling sexual harassment are applied consistently.
Anyone can experience sexual harassment or assault at work.
In addition to creating a toxic work environment, it can cause long-term mental health impacts like trauma for those who’ve been directly (and sometimes indirectly) affected.
As you take steps to address the harassment or assault, remember that your health and safety matter, too. It’s possible to manage the health impacts of workplace harassment. If you need more support, you can always reach out to a compassionate, trauma-informed mental health professional.