Sexual Harassment

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Sexual Harassment 101

“General to retire early after army endorses harassment charges.”

Headlines such as this one (found in a Raleigh, North Carolina newspaper) are more common these days. The two-star general in question was accused of sexually harassing the U.S. Army’s highest ranking woman.

Years ago, the topic of sexual harassment was taboo. But, times have changes! Now, sexual harassment issues are discussed openly on the nightly news. For example, in 1991, a judge named Clarence Thomas (who was an employee at the EEOC – Equal Employment Opportunity Commission), stood accused of sexual harassment by Anita Hill, also an EEOC employee. And, in 1998, President Bill Clinton was accused of sexual harassment by Monica Lewinsky, an intern at the White House. Both men ended up “defending” themselves on national television.

Yet, sexual harassment is not a new problem It has been going on for hundreds of years! Believe it or not, one researcher found a special notice published in a New York newspaper in 1734. Written by a group of female household servants, the notice read, “We think it reasonable we should not be beat by our mistresses’ husbands, they being too strong and perhaps may do tender women mischief.”

Although sexual harassment is an old problem, it remained a silent issue in the workplace for many years. In the 1970’s, sexual harassment between coworkers began to get more attention. And, in 1976, an American judge first ruled that sexual harassment is illegal.

Sexual Harassment is:

  • Against the Law
  • Complicated
  • Very Serious
  • Embarrassing
  • Costly
  • Unwelcome
Is it sexual harassment or not?

See how much you already know about sexual harassment! Read the following situations and take a guess on whether you think sexual harassment has taken place.

  1. Sam and Annie have dinner one night after work. Now, Same has started to call repeatedly asking Annie out for dinner. Annie doesn’t want to have anything to do with Sam socially, is upset, and she has told him so. Is Sam harassing Annie?
  2. Nurse Susan is helping Dr. John examine an elderly patient. Dr. John tells Susan that she smells pretty today and wants to know what type of perfume she uses. Susan is flattered. Is Dr. John sexually harassing Nurse Susan?
  3. Mike and Bill are in the lobby of their workplace telling each other crude sexual jokes. Dave walks by on his way to the elevator and overhears one of the jokes and he is offended. Did Mike and Bill sexually harass Dave?
  4. Jane is very attracted to her supervisor, Bill. Since they are both single, she asked him out to dinner and a movie one Friday night. They had a great time and ended up spending the night together. Could this be considered sexual harassment?
  5. Becky has Alzheimer’s Disease and she lives in an assisted living facility. Becky’s a very sweet lady, but whenever the nursing assistants come to her room to help her get dressed, Becky likes to rub their breasts. Is this sexual harassment?
  6. Jack, a lab tech, is always following Lucy around in the unit commenting on her appearance, how beautiful she is, touching her in public and private, and invading her space. He makes sexual comments to her like saying he wants to see her have sex with her husband. She has asked him to stop it, but he won’t. Lucy dreads coming to work anymore and is thinking of quitting her job. Is Jack sexually harassing Lucy?
  7. Tracy is a home health aide. One of her clients is a disabled man in his twenties. When she helps him with his personal care, he often talks about sex and asks her to touch him in intimate ways. Now, Tracy dreads going to his house every day. Is this client sexually harassing Tracy?


  1. Yes. It is a deliberate and repeated action and Annie has made it clear that she that she doesn’t want to see him socially.
  2. No. The behavior is welcome.
  3. Technically, yes. Dave was offended by what he heard in the lobby of his workplace. However, unless it happened repeatedly, it wouldn’t call for further action.
  4. No. They are both consenting adults. (Though, in this day and age, it’s a dangerous thing to do.)
  5. No, Becky is ill with Alzheimer’s Disease and although her behavior is inappropriate, she most likely has no idea of what she is doing.
  6. Yes. Jack’s behavior is sex-based, unwelcome, unwanted, deliberate, and it’s creating a stressful, offensive work environment for Lucy.
  7. Yes. This client’s behavior is offensive to Tracy. It is sexual in nature, unwanted, unwelcome, and creating problems for her at work. (Remember, the client’s home is Tracy’s workplace!)
What is sexual harassment?

According to the dictionary, “harass” is defined as:

  • To annoy or pester someone repeatedly.
  • To cause someone trouble, worry, or torment.

That sounds pretty simple, right? Sort of like a ten-year-old bully “harassing” other kids on the playground. But, sexual harassment isn’t simple at all. It’s a very complex issue with many fine lines and gray areas which can make sexual harassment very confusing!

First, it’s important to learn about the federal laws regarding sexual harassment:

  • The first federal law to address sexual harassment is know as Title VII (or Title Seven). It is part of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. According to Title VII, men and women must be treated the same in the workplace. This means that all employees should be treated equally when it comes to hiring, firing, salary, job assignments, promotions, and benefits. If there is discrimination based on sex, it’s illegal. This federal law is enforced by a federal agency called the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).
  • The 1991 Civil Rights Act changed the 1964 Act to allow for additional remedies for the pain and suffering caused by illegal discrimination. It allows jury trials for sexual harassment cases and allows victims to receive money for damages.
  • Together, these two laws help protect people against sexual harassment in the workplace.

Next, you’ll read two definitions of sexual harassment: the legal definition and the behavioral definition.

  • Please note that these definitions are based on federal law, not state law.
  • Each of the 50 states has its own additional laws on sexual harassment. So, be sure to find out what your state laws say about sexual harassment!
The Legal Definition of Sexual Harassment

U.S. laws and EEOC Guidelines define sexual harassment as “illegal discrimination” in the workplace. For someone’s behavior to be against the law, the behavior must be both unwelcome and considered offensive by the victim. Offensive behavior might include sexual gestures and expressions, suggestive jokes, comments about sexual orientation, offensive pictures, or unwelcome touching and/or fondling.

There are two legal categories of sexual harassment – 1) quid prop quo and 2) hostile environment.

  1. Quid pro quo is a Latin term meaning “something for something” or “this for that”.
    • Sexual harassment is considered quid pro quo when a supervisor or manager offers a job benefit to an employee – if that employee gives into sexual advances. In other words, that employee gets something when he or she gives something.
    • For example, Betty is a nursing assistant in a long term care facility. Frequently, her boss, Mr. Smith, tells her she’s pretty and states at her while she works. It makes Betty a little uncomfortable but she just tries to ignore it. Then, one day, when Betty asks Mr. Smith for some vacation time, he tells her he’ll give it to her if she lets him watch while she takes off her blouse.
    • Remember… people who commit this type of sexual harassment might come right out and ask for sex, or they might just “hint” at it. It’s still quid pro quo.
  2. Hostile environment harassment is when the unwelcome sexual behavior causes the victim to have major problems at work – including poor job performance.
    • Often, the harassing behavior creates such a negative, offensive work environment that it affects not only the victim – but also the victim’s coworkers.
    • Usually, the goal of hostile environment is to make the victim’s work life as miserable as possible. This type of harassment could be going on between any two people at work – not just between a boss and an employee. (And, remember, for home health aids, the client’s home becomes an extension of the workplace.)
The behavioral definition of sexual harassment

The behavioral definition is a common-sense, easy way to think about sexual harassment. This definition states that sexual harassment is:

  1. “Sexual in nature or sex-based”: The harassment behavior has to have some sort of sexual basis – either related to sexual activity or to someone’s gender (male or female).
  2. “Deliberate and/or repeated”: The behavior must be done on purpose – not by accident. And it must be repeated several times before “normal” or “reasonable” people find it offensive.
  3. “Not welcome, not asked for, and not returned”: Sexual harassment isn’t pleasant for the victims. They have not asked for it and they don’t respond to the behavior by acting inappropriately in return.
Who is affected by sexual harassment?

Sexual harassment can happen to anyone! No one is immune. It doesn’t matter if you’re male, female, young, old, black, white, Asian, or Hispanic. It doesn’t matter how much money you make, where you live, what level of job you have, or if you’re married or single.

However, studies have shown that there are some common qualities in victims of sexual harassment. Keep in mind that the following are general statements that may describe the “typical” victim of sexual harassment:

  • Statistics show that more women than men become victims of sexual harassment – and women tend to be more willing to report the incidents.
  • The typical victim is over age 35 and college educated. Female victims tend to be in lower level jobs than the male victims.
  • Even though the typical victim is over age 35, studies have shown that younger people have a greater chance of being sexually harassed than older people.
  • Male victims have reported a higher incidence of same-sex harassment than female victims. (The male to male incidents may be general harassment – not always sexual – and they may or may not involve homosexuality.)
More about sexual harassment victims

Both male and female victims of sexual harassment have reported that they feel:

  • Angry
  • Frightened
  • Demeaned
  • Violated
  • Powerless
  • Upset
  • Embarrassed
  • Intimidated
  • Trapped
  • Physically ill

Some studies have shown sexual harassment may cause victims to act differently at work. They may begin to:

  • Like work less and less – so they call in sick more often.
  • Have trouble concentrating – so they aren’t as productive as before.
  • Perform poorly at their jobs – so their jobs may be at risk.
Four levels of sexual harassment
  1. Could be sexual harassment
    • This level of behavior is mild enough so that some people might consider it socially acceptable.
    • Most people would consider the behavior to be out-of-line or inappropriate – but they probably wouldn’t call it sexual harassment.
  2. Mild sexual harassment
    • Mild sexual harassment behaviors still might be considered socially acceptable to a few people.
    • However, most people would consider the behavior offensive. The behavior is bothersome and definitely worth mentioning, but it usually doesn’t call for a formal complaint.
  3. Moderate sexual harassment
    • This level of behavior is not socially acceptable and most people would consider it offensive and would want the behavior stopped.
    • The behavior is serious enough that some action should be taken against the person doing it. This action could be in the form of warning letters and/or reprimands. It calls for a formal complaint to be filed with your workplace and/or the EEOC.
  4. Severe sexual harassment
    • Severe sexual harassment behaviors are never socially acceptable.
    • This level of behavior is so graphic and so severe that even if it just happens once, it calls for major action against the offending person – such as probation, suspension, or termination.
    • Behavior included in this category is attempted or actual rape and sexual assault. (Obviously, these offenses can involve criminal charges, too.)


  • The less severe the behavior, the more responsibility the victim has to speak up and let someone know about it. This is because mild sexual harassment may not be noticed by anyone but the victim – at least until it has been repeated over and over.
  • The more severe the behavior, the less need there is for the victim to speak up. This is because the behavior is so awful that other people are likely to notice it right away. (The exception to this is in home health. When you work along in clients’ homes, there is no one around to notice even severe behavior! So, speak up!)
Three types of sexual harassment
  1. Verbal sexual harassment
    • This is probably the most common form of sexual harassment.
    • It can include: Humor and jokes about sex, name calling, negative comments and/or remarks, whistling at someone, cat calls, telling lies or spreading rumors about a person’s sex life.
    • Example: A male supervisor says to one of his female employees, “You know, honey, with a great body like yours, you’ll get a promotion in no time!”
  2. Non-verbal sexual harassment
    • This is just as serious as verbal sexual harassment.
    • It can include: certain suggestive looks (looking a person up and down, staring at someone), gestures, ogling, making facial expressions like throwing kisses and licking lips, leering, sexual advances, showing “dirty” photographs, pictures or cartoons, blocking a person’s path, and giving personal gifts.
    • Example: Lisa is a nursing assistant at a skilled nursing facility. There is a doctor who visits several times a week to see his patients who worried Lisa. Whenever they cross in the hall or are in the elevator alone, he looks her up and down, licks his lips, and blows her kisses.
  3. Physical sexual harassment
    • This behavior can be the most severe form of sexual harassment.
    • It includes: Intentional touching, pinching, rubbing, brushing against someone’s breast or buttocks, inappropriate display of a part of one’s body, and forced sex acts.
    • Example: An attractive male nursing assistant works in a hospital. One of his jobs is to help the nurses transfer patients from bed to chair, bed to bed, etc. Whenever he helps this one particular female nurse, she always rubs her hands along his arms and brushes her breasts against him. This makes him feel very uncomfortable.


For a behavior to be considered sexual harassment, it must be:

  • Sexual in nature or sex-based.
  • Unwelcome, unwanted, and not returned by the victim.
  • Done on purpose and/or repeated over and over again.
What about “accidental” sexual behavior?

Let’s face it. Accidents do happen. At one time or another, most people have said the wrong thing at the wrong time or acted inappropriately for a moment. These accidental “slip-ups” are called social blunders. Examples of inappropriate social blunders include:

  • Susan and Chris are coworkers – and friends. At work one day, Susan stops Chris in the hallway to tell her some “juicy” secrets about what she and her boyfriend did over the weekend. Bob is walking down the hallway and can’t help overhearing their “sexy” conversation. Susan can tell he is offended and wishes she had waited until after work to tell Chris about her private life.
  • Steve is helping his supervisor unpack some boxes of supplies. He accidentally brushes his hand against her breast. Steve is very embarrassed and doesn’t know what to say.
  • John and Sally are both nursing assistants. Sally is new and John is helping her get oriented to the job. To get to know her a little better, John asks her if she has a boyfriend. Sally blushes and gets very quiet. John realizes that she thought he was “coming on” to her. Now, things are tense between them.

The best thing to do in these “accidental” situations is to apologize to the offend person and promise not to do it again! (Remember… a behavior that happens only once isn’t necessarily considered sexual harassment – especially if it was accidental.)

Keep in mind that certain illnesses may cause your clients to behave in an inappropriate sexual manner. 

  • For example, people with Alzheimer’s Disease or dementia may do inappropriate things such as undressing or touching their “private parts” in public, touching or grabbing other people in a sexual way, making inappropriate comments and masturbating.
  • These behaviors are not necessarily about sex. Many times the behavior is the client’s way of communicating some need. For example, a confused client may take off her blouse she is too hot or because she wants to get ready for bed. A client with Alzheimer’s may take off his pants because they are too tight or because he has to urinate.
How to stop sexual harassment!

Think back to the definitions of sexual harassment – and to the types and levels of sexual harassment. If you think someone’s behavior is sexual harassment, then you need to do something to stop the behavior right away. Try following these steps…

  1. Speak up to the person doing the harassment. Let him or her know right away that you are offended by the behavior or action. Be direct! Make sure the person understands you.
  2. Get help if the behavior or action doesn’t stop. Let your boss, supervisor, or manager know about the situation immediately. Don’t ignore the problem since it will probably get worse as time goes on. If you don’t get any help from your boss, go to your boss’s boss. Ask a friend or co-worker for support.
  3. Find out about your workplace policy on sexual harassment and follow the procedures. You should have received a copy of this policy when you were hired. Many organizations post the policy on bulletin boards in cafeterias or break rooms. If you don’t have a copy of your company’s policy, check with your boss or your human resource department.
  4. File a formal complaint if the behavior or action doesn’t stop – and you have tried Steps 2 and 3. You can file a formal complaint with your human resource department, the EEOC, and/or your state’s Department of Labor.

It’s a common myth that sexual harassment is the fault of victims.. that they somehow “invite” the problem. This is false! The fault lies with the harassers. They are the ones with the problem.

Ways to prevent sexual harassment!

Remember that sexual harassment is a form of discrimination. Keep this in mind while reviewing the following ways that may help prevent prevent sexual harassment in the workplace.

  • Learn more about the cultural and social differences among your coworkers. Remember that everyone has different beliefs and values. Getting to know your coworkers will help you understand what they consider appropriate behavior in the workplace.
  • Educate yourself. The more you know about sexual harassment, the better off you are! Attend all the sexual harassment sessions that your workplace offers. And get to know your sexual harassment policy and procedures.
  • Communicate to any people who may be bothering you. Let them know that you are hurt and offended by their behavior and/or action. They won’t know that it offends you if you stay silent. Be direct. Tell it like it is. Their behavior is not welcome, not wanted, and not returned by you. (Likewise, if someone tells you that they are offended by your actions, be considerate of their feelings. And, remember that sexual harassment has consequences!)
A few common questions

Q: Is it okay to ask a coworker for a date?

  • A: Yes, it isn’t illegal to ask another employee for a date and to be friendly with them. Your company, the EEOC, and the laws aren’t concerned with what happens between consenting adults. But keep in mind that dating co-workers can be tricky. You must keep your relationship professional at work. And what if the relationship ends? It could create a problem later on. For this reason, many companies discourage dating. (Please note: If the person who is asked out on a date says “no”, and the other person keeps on asking, then it becomes harassment.)

Q: What about giving someone a compliment? Is that okay?

  • A: It’s fine to give someone a compliment at work, especially if those compliments relate to work, or make them feel good. Remember now, that if those compliments and comments embarrass, degrade, intimidate, or are generally inappropriate on the job, you could find yourself in some trouble. Comments that are sexual in nature and unwelcome are illegal and must not be allowed.

Q: What should I do if I’m being sexually harassed in a client’s home?

  • A: Home health aides often work alone with clients in their homes. If you are being sexually harassed by a client or family member, and the harassment is mild, ask the person – firmly – to stop the harassing behavior, finish your work with the client and report the incident to your supervisor after you have left the home. If the harassment is sever – or if you sense that you are in danger – follow your workplace policy for these situations. It may include leaving the home immediately and/or calling 911. Remember… you don’t want to abandon the client, but you don’t want to put yourself in danger either. Your supervisor is responsible for your safety in the field. If the harassment is repeated, you may have to “buddy up” with another aide to work at that home or the physician may have to be notified that home care is not appropriate for that client. TIP: Make sure your supervisor knows where you are at all times. If, for some reason, you change the order in which you visit your clients – call the office right away.

Q: What if I have done something that I think may be offensive?

  • A: Quickly stop the behavior or action and don’t do it again! To find out for certain, you may want to ask the other person, privately, if what you did or said was offensive or bothersome in any way. Just because they didn’t object first, doesn’t mean that they liked what you did or said.

Q: What happens when harassment happens away from work or after hours?

  • A: It’s complicated. The discrimination laws deal with employment and are there to protect people at work and to make sure their employers are responsible for following the law. If the behavior is away from the workplace, it’s usually not covered by these laws. But, if the behavior starts off away from work and then carries over to the workplace and causes problems, then it may be covered by the discrimination laws. It may not be so important when and where harassment occurred as long as it has an effect on the employee (victim’s) work and/or work environment. This is particularly true if the offender is a supervisor.
A few interesting facts
  • According to the latest surveys, 40 to 50% of working women and up to 15% of working men experience sexual harassment.
  • According to the New England Journal of Medicine, about 74% of women who work in health care are exposed to some form of sexual harassment.
  • The number of sexual harassment cases filed with the EEOC every year more than doubled from 1990 to 1995 – from 6,127 to 15,540 cases!
  • In 1997, there were 15,997 charges of sexual harassment and $49.5 million was given to the victims in settlement costs.
  • More than 95% of sexual harassment cases involve men as the offender while less than 5% involve women as the offender.

Please note: Sexual harassment only gets worse when ignored. It will not go away on its own. Don’t be a part of the problem… Speak up right away and get help!

What is your supervisor’s responsibility?

Your supervisor is responsible for making sure that every employee knows that harassment of any kind is not acceptable and won’t be tolerated. If you go to your supervisor with a harassment complaint, he or she has a responsibility to take action to stop the problem and prevent it from happening again in the future. By law, the company and supervisor have to help you.

Supervisors should:

  • Listen to what you have to say about the problem and then follow up with the offender.
  • Follow your company’s sexual harassment/discrimination policy and procedures.
  • Direct you to the appropriate person who handles sexual harassment complaints (if it’s not their job). Many companies have a human resource department that handles these type of problem.

You should expect:

  • An investigation by the company in a timely manner.
  • A commitment to confidentiality.
  • A promise of appropriate corrective action, which could include the termination of the offender.
  • No tolerance for revenge taken by either party.

More notes:

  • The EEOC says that the administration of any workplace may be held responsible for sexual harassment of their employees by supervisors – even if they didn’t know it was going on!
  • Also, they can be held responsible for the behavior of co-workers (and even non-employees) when they know it’s a problem, but do nothing.
A few tips that might help!
  • When telling a person who is bothering you that you are offended, try to start your sentence with the word “I” – not the word “you”. For example, compare these two approaches. 1) “I don’t like it when you call me babe instead of calling me by my name. I don’t consider it very professional. Please don’t do it anymore!” or 2) “You really need to shape up and start acting like a professional. You can start by calling me by my name!”. You have a better chance of being heard if you use the first approach!
  • Sometimes you may need to repeat your statement to the offender to be sure that he or she gets the point.
  • If you are uncomfortable talking about the issue, write a letter to the offender explaining that his/her behavior is offensive to you. (Again, use statements that start with”I”). Keep a copy of the letter for your records. It may be useful later on.
  • Remember that a person overhearing an off-color joke or comment can claim harassment – if it’s something that happens over and over.
  • If a behavior and/or action isn’t appropriate in from of your daughter, wife, mother, or grandmother, then it’s probably not appropriate in front of your co-workers either.
  • Keep in mind that the person being harassed is a victim – but so is anyone else in the workplace who is bothered by the offensive behavior and/or action!
  • If you are being harassed, keep a record – like a diary – of each incident with a date, time, place, and description of what happened. It may be useful later on.
  • Look in your phone book for a local EEOC office near you. The federal agency covers workplaces with 15 employees or more. State law may protect you if you’re in a smaller workplace.
  • When an offender is a non-employee, such as a customer, a client, or a client’s family member, the employer may be held responsible if they know about it, but do nothing. Keeping records is important here.
  • Keep in mind that sexual harassment is a very serious charge to make against someone. Be careful! Don’t make a false complaint. You could be disciplined for it.

Sexual Harassment

1 / 10

The best way to handle being sexually harassed is to try to ignore it.

2 / 10

People who experience sexual harassment may feel...

3 / 10

Quid pro quo harassment happens between a supervisor and an employee.

4 / 10

If you think that you are being sexually harassed at work, you should NOT...

5 / 10

People who are sexually harassed usually ask for it by dressing in "sexy" clothes.

6 / 10

Which of the following could be considered sexual harassment?

7 / 10

Moderate sexual harassment probably calls for a formal complaint with your workplace and/or the EEOC.

8 / 10

If the offender never touches you, it's not really sexual harassment.

9 / 10

If a client's son tries to fondle you every time you care for his mother, you should ask your supervisor for help.

10 / 10

Your workplace only needs a policy on sexual harassment if there have been complaints about harassment in the past.

Your score is