But what does workplace sexual harassment look like?

Did you know that 81% of women will experience some form of harassment in their lifetime?

Most of us know what street harassment looks like – like one of those scenes from an ‘80’s movie where the woman walks past a construction site and all the male workers whistle and shout out how hot she is. That movie scene is not far from reality. Street harassment is leering and catcalling, following someone and persistently requesting a phone number or a smile. It’s blatant and it is in your face.

Workplace sexual harassment can also be just as egregious – much like the 1980 movie 9 to 5 where Dolly Parton’s character is grabbed and demeaned by her misogynist boss. (It’s crazy how some things haven’t changed… sexual harassment in the workplace, Dolly Parton, etc.)

But this is not the full picture. Sometimes workplace sexual harassment can look quite different. And the truth about who is victimized by sexual harassment might surprise you…

The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission definition of sexual harassment includes “unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical harassment of sexual nature.” Sexual harassment is “illegal when it is so frequent or severe that it creates a hostile work environment or when it results in adverse employment decisions (such as the victim being fired or demoted).”

During our SAFE Institute healthy workplace trainings, otherwise known as BASE trainings, we discuss a wide range of behaviors that may constitute sexual harassment. Our most important message, however is that at the end of the day it is the person on the receiving end that determines if these behaviors are unwelcome. Taking it back to 9 to 5, Dolly gets to decide.

Some workplace sexual harassment behaviors to look out for include:

  • Leering
  • Offensive remarks about someone’s looks, clothing, or body parts
  • Telling sexual or lewd jokes, or jokes that make people uncomfortable
  • Touch that makes someone uncomfortable
  • Making sexual gestures
  • Posting or sharing sexually suggestive or demeaning messages or images
  • Aggressive flirting or propositions
  • Quid pro quo of sexual nature

But this is certainly not an exhaustive list. It is important enough to repeat: at the end of the day it is the person on the receiving end that determines if these behaviors are unwelcome.

What’s important to know about sexual harassment is:

  • Gender does not determine the victim. The harasser could easily be a woman and the victim a man. The harasser and the victim of sexual harassment may the same sex, they may be opposite sexes, they may be somewhere on the gender spectrum.
  • Harassment can occur across all power dynamics and hierarchies. The harasser may be the victim's supervisor, colleague, consultant, manager, employee, co-worker, etc. If the bartender at the restaurant sexually harasses his female manager, it is just as egregious as the office manager sexually harassing the young man in the typing pool. (Do they even have those anymore? They did in the movie 9 to 5…)
  • Sexual harassment in the workplace impacts everyone. To that end, the victim does not have to be the person harassed but could be anyone affected by the offensive conduct. If a waitress calls her restaurant manager an inappropriate word loud enough for hostess of the restaurant to hear, if the hostess feels uncomfortable then the hostess is the victim.
  • Importantly - the harasser's conduct must be unwelcome.

It is imperative for workplace leaders to talk with staff and colleagues on the definition and signs of sexual harassment in order to help prevent it. The EEOC found when people were asked whether or not they had experienced sexual harassment at work, 1 in 4, or 25%, said yes. When harassment was defined with specific acts, such as sexual coercion or crude jokes, the number of people who reported having experienced this sort of treatment more than doubled.

In summary: All actions or words that are sexual in nature and impact an employee’s ability to work or create a hostile work environment are considered sexual harassment. These sexual harassment examples must be addressed to create a healthier, more respectful environment in the workplace. Otherwise, you might find Dolly Parton and her friends Lily Tomlin and Jane Fonda wreaking havoc as they take revenge on their boss, Dabney Coleman…