What Constitutes Employee Sexual Harassment?

Tara Barnett

Employee sexual harassment is any type of touching, speech, or other contact that makes an employee uncomfortable or feel threatened in a sexual manner. While it is possible for customers to sexually harass an employee, this term is usually used for harassment between professionals. In order for a behavior to constitute employee sexual harassment, it must be performed without the consent of the other party. Deciding which actions constitute harassment and which are normal behavior is often more complex than it seems at first glance.

Sexual harassment can occur without touching.
Sexual harassment can occur without touching.

Sexual harassment in the workplace is a complex issue because people in a workplace often have social relationships. It is clear, though, that unwanted physical contact of a sexual nature always constitutes employee sexual harassment, if not sexual assault. Touching between employees that might seem innocent, such as patting someone on the shoulder, can be construed as sexual harassment if that employee subscribes to a philosophy that bans touching. Given the complexities surrounding contact between humans, it is safe to say that any type of touching can constitute employee sexual harassment in some cases.

At any workplace, it's essential that all employees feel that sexual harassment claims will be heard fairly, promptly, and without retribution.
At any workplace, it's essential that all employees feel that sexual harassment claims will be heard fairly, promptly, and without retribution.

Often, sexual harassment takes the form of speech rather than touch. Any talk relating to the body of another employee or relating to sexual functions in general can constitute employee sexual harassment if a person hearing the conversation is offended. Invitations to events that might be construed as sexual can also be offensive. In fact, even inviting another employee out on a date can constitute sexual harassment if a person makes invitations frequently after being asked to stop.

There are many more threatening gestures that may also constitute sexual harassment, although these are usually considered more serious than mere harassment. Sending pornographic images to another employee, for example, is a serious form of harassment. Making any threats of rape or other sexual assault is always a serious sexual offense and might be considered harassment as well.

These activities can be considered employee sexual harassment only if they are unwanted or if they are unreciprocated. Also, unless overtly sexual physical contact is involved, steps should be taken to ensure that the employee who is being harassed understands why his or her actions will not be tolerated. Sometimes a couple may work for the same company, and any gestures of affection between them should not be considered sexual harassment, although other employees who are around them may be offended at their public displays of affection. To be safe, many companies outline what types of contact and speech are acceptable for all employees, regardless of relation to one another.

Inappropriate and unwanted touching is sexual harassment.
Inappropriate and unwanted touching is sexual harassment.

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Discussion Comments


At this job I used to have, one day several of the employees were talking about what kind of smell they liked. I said I liked the smell of the inside of a washing machine, and then one male employee said, "is that like an aphrodisiac to you?"

I felt very uncomfortable. Does this count as workplace sexual harassment?


Clearly defined rules are essential, and are more necessary in some workplaces than in others.

A former co-worker used to crack rude jokes and make off-color comments. Because the women in the office knew it was not directed at them, or intended to make anyone uncomfortable, we just chuckled and said, "That's Ken for you." He would have given anyone the shirt off his back and was one of the most likeable people in the world. He just liked to tell risque jokes. They rarely got very risque, but I know people who would have been offended. We weren't, because they were not intended to make us feel lesser-than.

Ken did get in trouble because one woman filed a complaint about him. He wasn't talking to her -- she heard him talking on the phone. It didn't get beyond the complaint stage, but nevertheless, it was a reminder about minding what you say.

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