7 Telltale Signs You're Being Sexually Harassed at Work (and What You Should Do About It)

I'm a content strategist and consultant for Shegerian & Associates, aiming to make employee rights information more accessible.
Last updated on: February 17, 2023
It is everyone's duty to prevent sexual harassment at work. It's not just the HR team or the pool of managers' job to handle it. You are equally accountable for preventing sexual harassment from occurring to the individual who shares the cubicle with you. We all need to be on guard. Any instance that suggests sexual harassment needs to be reported right away. If you believe you are a victim of sexual harassment at work, gather the confidence to come forward. Do not let anyone suppress you. Remember that your voice matters to stop the same incident from happening to you or someone else again.
7 Telltale Signs You're Being Sexually Harassed at Work (and What You Should Do About It)

In 2017, Hollywood faced one of the biggest scandals the entertainment industry had to deal with throughout its history. It involved the unmasking of Harvey Weinstein, the acclaimed film producer behind Oscar-winning titles such as Shakespeare in Love, as a sexual offender.

The producer's fall from grace began with an article published by The New York Times, where actresses Ashley Judd and Rose McGowan came forward as victims. Their accounts, alongside those from less familiar names, triggered an industry-wide reckoning.

Soon after, more names cropped up, allegedly with their own past of sexual misconduct. As a result, sexual harassment became the subject of lengthy public discourse online and off.

Thanks to Weinstein's highly publicized case, people have become more aware of the seriousness of sexual harassment in the workplace. It's safe to say that we've made headway in terms of encouraging victims to speak up and demanding accountability from those who wronged them.

However, whatever progress we've made is not enough to put an end to sexual harassment at work. The sad thing is it still happens.

What is sexual harassment?

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act defines workplace sexual harassment in two terms.

  • Quid pro quo harassment – This occurs when a supervisor propositions an employee for a sexual favor in exchange for a work-related privilege. That privilege may be in the form of a pay hike, promotion, or both.
  • Hostile work environment – This refers to the chronic occurrence of unwelcome verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature that negatively impacts an employee's ability to feel safe at the workplace and do their job.

The stipulations of Title VII are important because, as statistics would have it, workplace sexual harassment is still quite rampant. It affects employees regardless of race, gender, and other demographic indicators. Here are numbers to mull over:

  • Almost 40% of American women feel depressed or anxious due to sexual harassment.
  • Over 35% of men have experienced sexual harassment in the workplace or school.
  • In the UK, nearly 7 in 10 LGBT people have faced sexual harassment at work.

7 Signs You're Being Sexually Harassed

Sexual harassment isn't always blatant. Sometimes, it can be so subtle that you might question your judgment. In that case, look for the following telltale signs.

1. Feelings of discomfort

Here, the operative word is uncomfortable. If you feel any discomfort in the presence of a colleague, whether due to their insistence to stand by your cubicle or unwelcome comments on your wardrobe, know that what you're feeling is valid. So, let that feeling guide you.

2. Unwelcome physical contact

Some people welcome physical contact as a show of endearment. Others see them as a violation of personal space, especially in a workplace setting where relationships are perhaps more professional than personal. So watch out for seemingly innocent gestures like patting, touching, and pinching.

3. Different or unique treatment

Sexual harassment may come in the form of unique or different treatment, especially those informed by sex or gender. For instance, ring the alarm bell if a supervisor assigns you tasks they deem "suited to a woman."

4. Sexualized language

Any comment — whether earnest or tongue-in-cheek — about a person's sexuality or sexual experience in a workplace setting is inappropriate. Watch out for these remarks made in person or through communication channels like emails or social media.

5. Persistence after you said "no" repeatedly

No law prohibits office romance. However, it should be consensual. A colleague whose romantic advances you've declined repeatedly must heed your message. Otherwise, their efforts to woo you might constitute sexual harassment.

6. Sexual bargaining

Some sexual harassment cases are crystal clear than others. If your boss approaches you to promise you a promotion in exchange for you sitting on their lap, let HR know ASAP.

7. Bullying

Bullying could be the consequence of sexual frustration; hence, it can be a form of sexual harassment. Consider the same persistent suitor you have at the workplace. If they suddenly do a 180 and start bullying you, one possible explanation for their behavior is the rejection they went through. You can argue that point should you file a sexual harassment case against them.

What to Do If You Experience Sexual Harassment at Work

If you know for sure or suspect you're being sexually harassed at work, here's what to do.

  • Voice out

The first order of business is letting your harasser know that you won't put up with their infringement of your rights. If that's not possible because your harasser is your boss, keep calm and do the following.

  • Keep a record

Document all harassment incidents. Write down the time, place, and other essential details. If you can have a witness corroborate your account, even better.

  • Keep your notes in a safe place

Do not keep your notes on your office desk or computer. Instead, tuck them away at home where they won't be compromised. You'll need them should the harassment go out of hand and you're ready to file an official complaint.

  • Report to HR

Inform your direct supervisor about your concern. Then write an official incident report. If your immediate supervisor is your harasser, go straight to HR.

  • Consult with a lawyer

Some workplace sexual harassment cases do not get resolved internally. In that case, you'll have to consult with a professional outside your organization. Discuss the matter as detailed as possible, then decide how to go about the case together.

Wrapping It Up

Preventing workplace sexual harassment is everyone's job. It's not a responsibility exclusive to the HR staff or pool of managers. You, too, are responsible for ensuring that the person in the cubicle next to yours doesn't fall victim to sexual harassment. Everyone must be vigilant. Any incident that points toward sexual harassment must be flagged. And promptly, that is.

Meanwhile, muster the courage to speak up if you feel you're being sexually harassed in the workplace. Do not allow yourself to be silenced. Remember that your voice matters to prevent the same thing from happening again to you or someone else.