Workplace sexual harassment is more common than you think. Even if it's not an issue that seemingly pervades your workplace, chances are you know someone who has experienced verbal sexual harassment. You may even be a victim yourself, but you may not have known how to identify it.
Sexual harassment comes in many forms. It's not just sexual assault, it's not just about sexual advances and it's not just physical. The most pervasive kinds of sexual harassment can be verbal.
Sexual harassment in a work environment refers to repeated and continuous behaviors of a sexual nature, including comments, touching, sending or posting photos and literature (e.g. emails) or requests (e.g. a supervisor asking an employee for sex or a date).
Verbal sexual harassment refers to any of the above behaviors that are said out loud either to a person directly, near them or about them. This can look like inappropriate sexual comments said about your appearance to colleagues, sexually suggestive emails sent to your work account and lewd requests for dates or sexual favors. All of these are a type of sexual harassment and are a violation of the victim's civil rights.
Like I said before, the chances are high that you either have been or know somebody who has been a victim of verbal sexual harassment in the workplace. Unfortunately, that's not surprising.: A recent study by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) in 2016 found that at least one in four women experience sexual harassment in the workplace. The study also found that anywhere from 87 percent to 94 percent of employees do not file formal complaints with anyone, including their employer.
How employees conduct themselves in the workplace matters. Certain behaviors, such as verbal sexual harassment, are not only inappropriate and unwelcome, but they are illegal and cause hostile work environments. Employers typically have a sexual harassment policy or a more general anti-harassment policy that's in line with the anti-discrimination law, so you should be familiar with as much material as possible to protect yourself from sexual harassment at work. But you're not own your own! We're here to help.
We've discussed what verbal sexual harassment looks like, but to make sure you know what is explicitly or implicitly illegal, here is the EEOC's definition of sexual harassment:
"It is unlawful to harass a person (an applicant or employee) because of that person’s sex. Harassment can include “sexual harassment” or unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical harassment of a sexual nature.
Harassment does not have to be of a sexual nature, however, and can include offensive remarks about a person’s sex. For example, it is illegal to harass a woman by making offensive comments about women in general.
Both victim and the harasser can be either a woman or a man, and the victim and harasser can be the same sex.
Although the law doesn’t prohibit simple teasing, offhand comments, or isolated incidents that are not very serious, harassment is illegal when it is so frequent or severe that it creates a hostile or offensive work environment or when it results in an adverse employment decision (such as the victim being fired or demoted).
The harasser can be the victim's supervisor, a supervisor in another area, a co-worker, or someone who is not an employee of the employer, such as a client or customer."
Note that the EEOC says that verbal sexual harassment can be exhibited by a man to a woman, by a woman to a man and can also happen between two individuals of the same gender.
Here are some examples of verbal harassment. Of course, these need to cause a "hostile" work environment in order to be taken seriously in the legal world. Unfortunately, some one-time instances might not hold much merit.
When you hear verbal abuse at work, you might be ready to jump into action... but let’s be real. There often aren’t a lot of good options to report verbal harassment at work. As you’ll see below, your main option is to report to your supervisor and/or human resources department. It's the best step in protecting your individual employment and making sure that you'll still be able to do your job in a hostile environment.
However, HR often plays a role in protecting the company from liability rather than protecting employees. If you file a sexual harassment claim and human resources begins to investigate, you may find that they ask questions about your conduct, not just your harasser's. It's one of the reasons why many sexual harassment complaints are not turned into a sexual harassment case. The EEOC’s 2016 study found that workplace harassment often goes unreported because “employees… fear disbelief of their claim, inaction on their claim, blame, or social or professional retaliation.”
This may sound or feel discouraging, and in many ways, it is. What's the point of a sexual harassment policy if employees aren't protected from the potential aftermath in their work environment? Yet recently, we’ve not only seen an influx of people reporting sexual harassment and assault, but we've seen claims that are believed and are taken seriously. Now, more than ever before, workplace harassment (and verbal sexual harassment) is taken seriously.
If you are looking to report verbal sexual harassment, take the following steps:
In the moment when verbal sexual harassment is taking place, many people find that they freeze or they’re not sure how to respond. This is perfectly normal, as you don't expect to be sexually harassed during your workday! If this happens, try writing down the details of the harassment as soon as you can.
If you know your workplace policy and procedure, make sure you have as much necessary information as they'll need to pursue your claim in full. Write down as much detailed information about the occurrence as you can; the more information for your notes, the better. In general, you may want to note:
You may also want to note your feelings or physiological responses to the verbal harassment. You do NOT have to share this with anyone if you don’t want to, but writing these down can help you start to process what just happened and clarify your thoughts.
Unsurprisingly, there is strength in numbers. Reporting verbal sexual harassment as a group can help mitigate the perceived consequences of reporting, including being taken seriously and retaliation. Don't pressure your colleagues to share their verbal harassment stories, but if you find that they've experienced similar workplace sexual harassment and are looking to bring their own sexual harassment claim, team up. Your employer will have to take your complaint more seriously if it's coming from more than one employee.
Most workplaces have official policies and procedures for reporting unwelcome sexual harassment; you should review yours before reporting. You’ll want to be clear about what information your sexual harassment case needs and whom you need to report to. It varies from workplace to workplace, but generally, you’ll bring your sexual harassment complaint to your HR representative or your supervisor.
Note: in most workplaces, you can report verbal sexual harassment even if you are not the victim. Many HR departments encourage witnesses to report verbal abuse, sex discrimination and violations of anti-discrimination law when they see it in their work environment. If your human resources team welcomes this kind of supportive conduct, file a complaint.
Verbal sexual assault in the workplace is illegal; nobody should have to work in a hostile work environment where they're victim to sexually suggestive comments and actions. If you feel that your employer isn't doing enough to protect you, you do have the option to file a complaint with your local police department and seek legal advice and representation. In both cases, there is, unfortunately, no guarantee that taking this kind of action will lead to the desired legal consequences.
Many people find involving HR to be an unsupportive experience. You might feel like it will just make everything more hostile, severe or pervasive.
If so, find your support system both at work and outside of work. Maybe you don’t want to report to HR or a supervisor, but you can confide in a co-worker. This person (or people) can help you strategize on what you need to feel comfortable and safe.
Check to see if your workplace has an Employee Assistance Program (EPA). If they do, reach out. It is confidential and they can connect you with support.
Remember: reporting is your choice. Do what’s best for you.
For more on sexual harassment, check out these links below.
If you think you may be experiencing or witnessing sexual harassment in your workplace, here are some signs that aren't so obvious.
If you think you may be experiencing or witnessing sexual harassment in your workplace, here's how to deal with it.
If you want to learn more about sexual harassment in the workplace — what it looks like, how it's defined and what to do about it, you'll find all the information you'll need and other helpful links here.
Jennifer Koza is a social worker specializing in program development. By day she is a research and evaluation analyst, committed to preventing violence against women and studying the value of work and workplaces. By night she is a painter- or at least she tries to be when she's not catching up on t.v./movies (or re-watching The West Wing, Gilmore Girls, or The Office).