Signs of Sexual Harassment Aren't Always Obvious — Here's How to Stay Alert

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Stressed Woman at Work

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Jennifer Koza
Jennifer Koza10
Social worker and writer in NYC

At least one in four women are sexually harassed at work, according to a recent report by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). Some studies report that the number of victims of workplace sexual harassment is actually much higher, at a staggering 85 percent.  

With sexual harassment case after sexual harassment case coming to light, researchers are looking into the aftermath and realizing just how much it can lead to toxic work environments that encourage discriminatory behavior and induce post-traumatic stress disorder. That's why it's important to detect.

Despite the prevalence of sexual harassment, however, it can be difficult to discern the behavior and signs.

Here’s how to tell if a coworker is being sexually harassed at work and what you can do about it.

Behavior to Look for in the Harasser:

According to the U.S. News Report & World Report, harassers exhibit the following behaviors continuously, repeatedly, and/or severely:

Behavior to Look for in the Victim:

Many times, sexual harassment doesn’t take place out in the open at work. That said, a person experiencing sexual harassment may show the following signs:

  • Sudden and/or frequent absences and tardiness — A coworker who is normally reliable and dependable might suddenly be late for work, call in sick, frequently leave early or miss important meetings. Your coworker might also put in for a sudden transfer or change their schedule.
  • Reduced productivity — Your coworker might suddenly struggle to meet deadlines or there might be a decrease in the quality or quantity of their work produced.  
  • Avoidance and anxiety — You might notice that a coworker who was once incredibly extroverted now passes on opportunities to socialize or becomes visibly uncomfortable or silent when a certain person enters the room or a conversation.
  • Declines professional development opportunities — Your coworker may pass up a promotion or other professional development opportunities for no apparent reason.
  • Increased alcohol or drug use — This sign might not be noticeable if you don’t socialize with your coworker. However, you may notice that a coworker suddenly keeps a bottle of alcohol in their desk drawer or repeatedly has a few drinks at lunch.

What to Do:

Even if you suspect your coworker is being sexually harassed, they may not feel comfortable going a traditional route, such as reporting to HR or their employers.  

If they do, help your coworker to review your workplace policies on sexual harassment and get clarity on to whom they should report the incident.

If they don’t want to file a complaint, you can take the following steps:

  • Validate their experiences — Oftentimes a victim of sexual harassment experiences intense feelings of shame, guilt and anger. They might doubt that what happened was a big deal or worth mentioning. Listen to your coworker’s experience and believe what they are telling you. Acknowledge their pain and that, while their reaction is normal, the type of behavior they experienced is not.
  • Provide resources — While your coworker may not want to make a formal complaint, you can provide them information on how to do so if they change their mind. You can also offer to find other resources, like the number to your Employee Assistance Program or connect them with a mental health professional.
  • Report any witnessed incidents of harassment — It’s on all of us to put an end to sexual harassment in the workplace, and many workplaces encourage employees to report an incident of sexual harassment even if they weren’t the target. Consult your policies or talk to your employers for help.


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).