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What Does Sexual Harassment ‘Look Like’ at Work?


Sexual harassment in the workplace is a pervasive problem. Although there has been a lot more discussion about it recently, not everyone is familiar with the many different ways sexual misconduct occurs at work. Most people can readily imagine some of the very overt ways this behavior manifests, but it more commonly occurs in less noticeable and nuanced ways.

Understanding what sexual harassment looks like at work can empower you to speak up. Once you are familiar with many of the different ways it occurs, you can more readily identify what’s going on and take action to protect your rights. For many, that involves speaking about what’s happening at work with an experienced employment law attorney, who can help them when their employers won’t.

About The Types of Sexual Harassment

Broadly speaking, sexual harassment can occur in a few distinct ways. These include physical, verbal, non-verbal, and quid pro quo. Within each of these categories are many different examples of behavior that can constitute sexual harassment under both California and federal law.

Physical Sexual Harassment

This type of sexual harassment is the kind most people readily picture in their minds. All forms of sexual harassment are uncomfortable and invasive, but those that are physical are particularly egregious.

Physical sexual harassment occurs anytime there is unwanted physical or sexual contact between an abuser and a survivor. This definition encompasses an incredibly broad gamut of potential interactions – essentially anything from a lingering handshake to sexual assault.

If you or someone you work with is being touched by someone else at work in a way that makes you feel uncomfortable, make it clear to them that the behavior is unwanted. If you don’t feel safe doing so, inform a supervisor or manager about what’s going on. Your employer is obligated to investigate your report and intervene to stop the behavior.

Verbal Sexual Harassment

It might also be easy to think of a few egregious examples of verbal sexual harassment. This type of harassment involves communicating a sexually inappropriate or derogatory comment, joke, question, etc. It can occur verbally in person, but such conduct can also be written in an email, instant message, text, or another form of electronic communication.

Although verbal sexual harassment doesn’t involve touching, it can be just as harmful as any other form of sexual harassment. An unfortunately unique quality of verbal sexual harassment is that an abuser can harass their target from anywhere in the world and at any time. Many people who began working from home when the COVID-19 pandemic began learned this unfortunate occurrence meant that not having to go into the office didn’t necessarily shield them from abusive behavior.

It’s important to note that verbal sexual harassment doesn’t have to be inherently “sexual.” For example, a supervisor who voices opinions that one sex is “better suited” for a certain role in the company commits sexual harassment because their behavior discriminates against others.

Non-Verbal Sexual Harassment

There are certain behaviors that don’t fit as well in either the “verbal” or “physical” categories. These types of sexual harassment are those that involve making obscene gestures or exposing one’s self to a colleague.

They also include indirect sexual harassment, such as a coworker posting a bathing suit calendar in his cubicle or another coworker posting a message in a common area that discriminates against sex.

Quid Pro Quo Sexual Harassment

A Latin phrase meaning “this for that,” quid pro quo refers to an exchange of some kind. Within the context of sexual harassment at work, quid pro quo means an exchange of a workplace benefit for a sexual favor.

In most cases, there is a distinct supervisor-to-subordinate power dynamic in quid pro quo sexual harassment. In other words, a superior may offer their subordinate a promotion, raise, or another such benefit in exchange for a sexual favor.

Quid pro quo is always illegal and employees who are subjected to this form of sexual harassment can hold their employers accountable even if the transaction occurred.

Do You Need Legal Assistance?

If you are being sexually harassed at work, the abuser must stop when you make it clear that the behavior is unwanted. You should also inform your supervisor or another leader at your company about what happened. Your employer is obligated to investigate all reports of sexual harassment and take whatever action is necessary to correct the problem.

After reporting the incident to your employer, you should also get in touch with an experienced employment law attorney. A lawyer like one of ours at K2 Employment Law can help you with your claim and pursue any legal action that may be necessary to assert your rights.

If you want to learn more about how we can help, request a free consultation with us when you contact our firm online.