Sexual Harassment In The Workplace: Who Is Responsible?

Sexual harassment in the workplace is a frustratingly common problem. A recent survey found that 1 in 3 women from the ages of 18 to 34 has experienced some form of sexual harassment at work. The same survey indicates that it is also vastly unreported, with more than 70% of women opting to remain silent. That may be, in part, because victims don't know who to blame or how to assert their rights. This is what you should know.

What counts as sexual harassment?

Most people in today's workplace now recognize the stereotypical form of sexual harassment–where the boss propositions his female employees for sexual favors or makes lewd comments to them–and know that it's both unacceptable and illegal.

However, sexual harassment can be much more subtle than that and often comes from one's coworkers or customers instead of just employers. Both men and women can be the perpetrators and the victims. The customers or clients of a particular business can also be an additional source of harassment.

For example, 80% of female restaurant workers and 70% of the males say that they've experienced sexual harassment from their coworkers. Many also face similar problems with customers who feel at liberty to proposition servers or make sexual comments to them.

Sexual harassment can include a variety of unwanted, sexualized behaviors:

  • lewd remarks, teasing, jokes, or gestures

  • text messages and email commenting on a person's sex life, clothing, figure, or other physical attributes

  • purposeful touching of body parts

  • gossip or speculation about a person's sexual identity or sexual habits

In general, any sexual behavior that is purposeful and unwelcome can constitute sexual harassment, particularly if it is repeated.

Who is responsible for stopping sexual harassment?

The management of a business is always responsible for providing a safe, non-threatening work environment. It is up to the management of a business to stop employees from harassing other employees and to intervene with customers who think they are entitled to take liberties. An employer who looks the other way or, even worse, encourages employees to tolerate harassment in order to placate a customer is breaking the law.

How do you assert your rights against sexual harassment?

If you're being sexually harassed at work, you can't fight it if you don't report it. You should generally review your employee handbook or contract to determine who you should contact. If there is no set policy, talk to your immediate supervisor. If your immediate supervisor is the person harassing you, talk to the next person in the chain of command for the business.

When you discuss the situation with your employer or human resources office, be specific about what was done and who was present, even if what you are saying is somewhat graphic in nature. That's the only way that you can give your employer the information that he or she needs to handle the situation. In addition, that allows you to go on record about what happened.

Allow your employer the opportunity to remedy the situation. If your employer asks what you would like to see happen, be prepared to respond. For example, you may want to be transferred to a different shift or want your harasser transferred to a different shift so that you don't have to be in contact with him or her.

If your employer doesn't respond to your complaint, your next step should be to contact either the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and file a complaint or to speak to a discrimination attorney.