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What Counts as Sexual Harassment?

May 10, 2019 Sexual Harassment

Your boss always notices what you’re wearing, and compliments you on it—but somehow those “compliments” leave you feeling uneasy.

A few times you’ve walked into the break room and heard co-workers telling jokes that made you uncomfortable.

A colleague keeps trying to give you “friendly massages” while you’re sitting at your desk.

If any of this is happening to you, you may have a sexual harassment problem at work.

The term “sexual harassment” can cover a lot of behaviors, ranging from questionable comments to out-and-out assault. Between those two extremes lie coercion, bullying, the creation of a hostile workplace, and the offer of specific rewards in exchange for sexual favors.

Here are some answers to common questions about sexual harassment.

What is the legal definition of sexual harassment?

According to the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), sexual harassment can come in verbal or physical form. It can include unwelcome advances, jokes and comments, unwanted touching, offers of workplace favors in exchange for sexual favors, and adverse consequences for refusing—such as firing or demotion.

To qualify as sexual harassment, the behavior must either be severe or pervasive. It can be both, but it doesn’t have to be.

A single, serious incident—such as a sexual assault—can meet the “severe” qualification. “Pervasive” behavior can be more subtle—but if it is frequent enough to cause a hostile work environment, it may be sexual harassment.

What does NOT count as sexual harassment?

Some types of harassment may be illegal, but aren’t sexual harassment. These usually involve disparaging remarks, jokes, retaliation, or other misbehaviors related to other factors, such as religion, race, or disability.

According to the EEOC, mild, isolated comments or awkward interactions may not be serious enough to be considered sexual harassment—as long as they aren’t part of a pattern.

See Also: Quiz: Are You Being Sexually Harassed?

What is quid-pro-quo sexual harassment?

“Quid pro quo” is a Latin phrase that means “this for that.” In the workplace, this type of harassment occurs when your employer hints—or outright states—that they’ll give you something you want in return for sexual favors.

What they give can be anything: a promotion, a raise, a plum project, a transfer, or even a reprieve from some kind of negative consequence—such as not being fired or reprimanded, as long as you give in to sexual advances.

You don’t have to be an employee to be a victim of this type of harassment. Being offered a job in exchange for sexual favors is a prime example.

What is hostile work environment harassment?

“Pervasive” sexual harassment may be subtle—and if you look at each incident in isolation, it may not seem that serious. But taken as a whole, these instances happen frequently enough to cause a hostile work environment.

Some of the behaviors that may add up to a hostile work environment include:

  • Talking about people of your (or any) sex or gender in a way that makes you uncomfortable—even if it’s not about you personally
  • Showing you pornographic images, gifs, or memes
  • Sending around pornographic jokes or images via email or online chat
  • Asking you questions about your sex life
  • Continuing to ask you out after you’ve declined
  • Touching you in a way that makes you uncomfortable
  • Attempting to look down your shirt or up your skirt
  • Making overtly sexual jokes or comments, even if not to you directly
  • Bringing sex up in conversations

This is not a complete list. Many behaviors can add up to sexual harassment—if they occur frequently enough.

If you’re a victim of sexual harassment

It’s very common not to know whether a behavior that’s making you uncomfortable is actually sexual harassment. Even if you’re not sure, it’s essential to talk to a lawyer. An employment lawyer can help bring clarity to your situation—and help you decide what to do about it. Call us at 267-273-1054 or email us at for a free, confidential consultation.