How to Prevent and Respond to Sexual Harassment in the Workplace

How to Prevent and Respond to Sexual Harassment in the Workplace    


Sexual harassment is a serious issue which happens in workplaces everyday across the United States. It may occur to both men and women in the workplace and be perpetrated by either gender, (NOLO, 2014). The purpose of this article is to describe sexual harassment in the workplace and ways to prevent and handle it for both employers and employees.


Exploring Sexual Harassment in the Workplace


Forms of Sexual Harassment


Sexual harassment has been defined in both legal and psychological terms. In legal terms, it has been defined as a form of sex discrimination that consists of unwelcome verbal or physical conduct directed toward someone on the basis of their sex (AAUW, n.d.; NWLC, 2000a). This type of harassment is a violation of Title VII or the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the same federal law which forbids employment discrimination based on sex, race, color, national origin, or religion (AAUW, n.d.; NWLC, 2000a). Beyond this federal law, there are also state laws which vary across states to provide protection from sexual harassment in the workplace (AAUW, n.d.).


Sexual harassment may include unwelcome advances of a sexual nature, sexual favor requests, or other verbal or physical conduct. When such conduct is used while making employment decisions or as a condition of one's employment, it is called quid pro quo harassment (AAUW, nd; NWLC, 2000a). For example, a victim of sexual harassment may be demoted or fired while being harassed if he or she rejects an unwelcome sexual advance. When such conduct creates a negative work environment or interferes with work performance it is called hostile environment harassment (NWLC, 2000a). For example, a victim of sexual harassment may be subject to such conduct on a daily basis and begin avoiding work or co-workers due to the harassment. According to the American Association of University Women (AAUW), courts consider the following factors during determinations of hostile work environment cases:


(1) whether the conduct was verbal, physical, or both; (2) how frequently it was repeated; (3) whether the conduct was hostile or patently offensive; (4) whether the alleged harasser was a co-worker or supervisor; (5) whether others joined in perpetrating the harassment; and (6) whether the harassment was directed at more than one individual (p. 1).


Both quid pro quo and hostile work environment harassment in the workplace are legal violations. The following table (Table 1) gives examples of behaviors that may constitute sexual harassment by law.





Table 1: Examples of Sexual Harassment Behaviors



v  A supervisor implies to an employee that the employee must sleep with him to keep a job.

v  A sales clerk makes demeaning comments about female customers to his coworkers.

v  An office manager in a law firm is made uncomfortable by lawyers who regularly tell sexually explicit jokes.

v  A cashier at a store pinches and fondles a coworker against her will.

v  A secretary's coworkers belittle her and refer to her by sexist or demeaning terms.

v  Several employees post sexually explicit jokes on an office intranet bulletin board.

v  An employee sends emails to coworkers that contain sexually explicit language and jokes.


Source: NOLO, 2014


Psychologically, sexual harassment has been defined as "unwanted sex-related behavior at work that is appraised by the recipient as offensive, exceeding her resources, or threatening her well-being" (Fitzgerald, Swan, & Magley, 1997; p. 15). Some research literature on sexual harassment distinguishes the psychological concept of sexual harassment from the legal definition of such harassment. This is in recognition of the fact that behaviors that do not meet the legal definition of sexual harassment may still be perceived as sexual harassment to victims and have similar negative psychological consequences.


To this end, three major types of sexual harassment which have been identified in the research literature. First, gender harassment has been defined as "experiences of disparaging conduct not intended to elicit sexual cooperation" (Lim & Cortina, 2005, p.483). This type of sexual harassment involves hostile verbal and physical behaviors that are gender-based (and have been found to be primarily directed toward women) but not of a sexual nature. For example, negative comments about "a woman's place" in the home or work would fall under this type of sexual harassment. Second, unwanted sexual attention has been defined as the type of sexual harassment that involves hostile verbal and physical behaviors that are explicitly of a sexual nature. This would include behaviors like unwanted touching and suggestions of engagement in sexual acts. Lastly, sexual coercion has been identified as "subtle or explicit bribes or threats to make job conditions contingent on sexual behavior" (Lim & Cortina, 2005, p.483). This is similar to the legal definition of quid pro quo sexual harassment and may result in job-related consequences like demotion or firing for those who reject such coercion.


One rationale for making the distinction between legal and psychological definitions of sexual harassment is the research finding of Rotundo, Nguyen, and Sackett (2001) who found that women deem a wider range of behaviors as harassing than do men. For example, the authors of this study found that men and women agreed that behaviors like sexual coercion and propositions constitute sexual harassment. However, they found that men and women did not agree on behaviors like sex-stereotyped jokes and repeated dates requests. They also found gender differences in perceptions of physical sexual contact and hypothesized that "men may interpret [such] behavior as flattery, whereas women may perceive it as something that may escalate to harassment" (Rotundo, Nguyen, & Sackett, 2001, p. 920). Furthermore, their findings showed that that gender differences were larger for perceptions of what constitutes sexual harassment for behaviors that match legal definitions of what courts consider hostile work environment harassment.


Therefore, it is important for employers and employees to understand that gender differences do exist for perceptions of this type of harassment. Psychologically, sexual harassment may be experienced even in situations in which no sexual harassment has legally taken place. This may be especially true for women in the workplace. The following table outlines the behaviors examined by Rotundo, Nguyen, and Sackett (2001) in their research on gender differences in perceptions of sexual harassment. It is included here to show examples of behaviors that may be considered sexual harassment psychologically and socially, but not necessarily legally.


Table 2: Seven Behavioral Categories of Sexual Harassment




Behavioral examples

Derogatory attitudes - impersonal

Behaviors that reflect derogatory attitudes about men or women in general

Obscene gestures not directed at target.

Sex-stereotyped jokes.

Derogatory attitudes - personal

Behaviors that are directed at the target that reflect derogatory attitudes about the target's gender

Obscene phone calls. Belittling the target's competence.

Unwanted dating pressure

Persistent requests for dates after the target has refused

Repeated requests to go out after work or school.

Sexual propositions

Explicit requests for sexual encounters

Proposition for an affair.

Physical sexual contact

Behaviors in which the harasser makes physical sexual

Embracing the target.

Kissing the target.

Physical nonsexual contact

Behaviors in which the harasser makes physical nonsexual

contact with the target

Congratulatory hug.

Sexual coercion

Requests for sexual encounters or forced encounters that are made a condition of employment or promotion

Threatening punishment unless sexual favors are given.

Sexual bribery.



Source: Rotundo, Nguyen, & Sackett, 2001, p.916


Prevalence & Impact of Sexual Harassment


Exact statistics on the prevalence of sexual harassment are difficult to come by, as many incidents go unreported for a variety of reasons (e.g., feelings of shame and embarrassment, fear of job loss or demotion, fear of not being believed) and definitions of what constitutes sexual harassment may vary. The National Women's Law Center (NWLC, 2000b) reports that nearly half of women in the workplace have experienced some type of harassment, with only 5-15% formally reporting such incidents. Sexual harassment occurs at higher rates within male-dominated work environments like "blue collar jobs" (NWLC, 2000b). Those most likely to be victims of sexual harassment are young, unmarried women, and those who are more highly educated and in higher power positions (e.g., tenure-track positions) within their organization or company (Mueller, De Coster, & Estes, 2001). It is hypothesized that women with greater education and authority in their workplaces are at greater risk because they "are likely to be viewed as status seeking and thereby a threat to traditional male authority" (Mueller, De Coster, & Estes, 2001, p.414).


The impact of sexual harassment has been well-documented in the literature. For individuals, the consequences of being the victim of workplace sexual harassment include negative psychological/physical effects and negative work-related effects. Psychologically and physically, such harassment has been shown to be associated with increased stress, anxiety, depression; sleep problems, weight gain/loss issues, problematic drinking, post-traumatic stress disorder, and overall poorer mental and physical health status (Chan et al., 2008; McDonald, 2011; NWLC, 2000b; Rospenda, Richman, & Shannon, 2009; Schneider, Swan, & Fitzgerald, 1997; Willness, Steel, & Lee, 2007). The negative work-related effects associated with workplace sexual harassment include decreased job satisfaction, lower work motivation, higher job-related stress, lower job commitment, and financial stress associated with attempts to avoid harassment by taking time off, transferring positions, or quitting from positions (Chan, Lam, Chow, & Cheung, 2008; Mueller, De Coster, & Estes, 2001; McDonald, 2011; NWLC, 2000b; Willness, Steel, & Lee, 2007). Even employees who are not directly victimized by sexual harassment are subject to feeling the negative effects of working in an environment that has become hostile due to sexual harassment (NWLC, 2000b).


For employers, the consequences of workplace sexual harassment include decreased work productivity, increased employee turnover, and financial losses associated these factors (NWLC, 2000b). Employers may also incur legal costs and penalties from workers who file sexual harassment lawsuits. Sexual harassment may also negatively impact the reputation of an organization or company. 

Ways to Prevent and Respond to Sexual Harassment in the Workplace


Harassment Prevention


It is important for employees to be familiar with forms of sexual harassment and the laws surrounding it, and make every effort to prevent such harassment in the workplace. Legally, employers can be held liable for both legal forms of workplace sexual harassment, quid pro quo and hostile environment harassment, although the latter may be more defensible if an employer has made reasonable efforts to prevent and respond to such incidents (NWLC, 2000b). An example of a situation in which an employer may be held liable for workplace sexual harassment is if an incident occurs and is reported, and it is found that the employer did not take immediate actions to correct the issue (e.g., investigating the incident with involved parties).

Prevention of harassment before it occurs is better than responding to harassment that has already occurred for both employees and employers. One strategy that an employer can use to help prevent workplace sexual harassment is create and maintain a clear written policy about sexual harassment (NOLO, 2014). The policy should include definitions and examples of sexual harassment and consequences for employers who engage in perpetrating such behaviors. Another prevention strategy is to train employees, supervisors, and managers on the sexual harassment policy and related procedures (NOLO, 2014). A final recommended prevention strategy is for employers to regularly monitor their workplace environment (NOLO, 2014). For example, managers can conduct assessments of employees' perception of the workplace environment and take note themselves of what behaviors are happening within one's company or organization. Employers can also help prevent workplace sexual harassment by ensuring that the organizational culture as a whole is one in which negative behaviors are not tolerated (even those that do not constitute sexual harassment) and a positive social climate is maintained (Mueller, De Coster, & Estes, 2001).

Sexual harassment is far more likely to occur in workplaces in which there is a climate of general incivility (Lim & Cortina, 2005).

Harassment Response

Once sexual harassment has occurred, the most critical thing that an employer can do is to take such incidents and/or complaints about such incidents seriously (NOLO, 2014). This entails taking immediate steps to investigate the situation and follow the organization's policy on response. In some cases, it may be helpful to seek legal consultation to be clear on federal and state laws and proper steps to respond as an employer.

For individual employees, supervisors, or managers who find themselves victims of sexual harassment in the workplace, it is recommended to consult with the organization or company's policy on sexual harassment and follow it (AAUW, n.d.; NWLC, 2000a). Following this may mean notifying a manager of the situation. It is also suggested to keep a written record of any incidents that are perceived as sexual harassment (AAUW, n.d.; NWLC, 200a). Another strategy for responding to sexual harassment is to gain social support from others including family, friends, and co-workers, particularly those who may have witnessed incidents and may be willing to help or act as witnesses (NWLC, 2000a). It is only recommended that a person who has been harassed speak directly with the harasser about the behavior (e.g., asking them to stop) if he or she feels safe enough to do so (AAUW, n.d.).

Legally, employees in the U.S. have the right to file a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). This must be done within 180 days of the incident(s) in question. Complaints may be filed with the EEOC through their website without the representation of an attorney.



The purpose of this article was to detail the issues involved with workplace sexual harassment and provide ways for individuals and employers to handle it. There are legal and psychological ways of defining such harassment and several types of behavior that may be experienced as sexual harassment. Thus, it is important for employers and employees to be familiar with the various definitions and forms. Sexual harassment continues to be a common problem within the workplace with negative consequences for both employers and employees, especially those who are female. There are several ways to prevent and respond to sexual harassment including adopting a clear policy and investigating such incidents immediately if they occur. While it may be the legal responsibility of employers to do so, it is the responsibility of everyone in the workplace to understand this issue and create an environment that prevents sexual harassment before it ever occurs.


American Association of University Women (AAUW). (2014). Know your rights: Workplace sexual harassment (Factsheet). Retrieved from


Chan, D., Lam, C., Chow, S., & Cheung, S. (2008). Examining the job-related, psychological, and physical outcomes of workplace sexual harassment: a meta-analytic review. Psychology of Women Quarterly32(4), 362-376.

Cortina, L., & Wasti, S. (2005). Profiles in coping: responses to sexual harassment across persons, organizations, and cultures. Journal of Applied Psychology90(1), 182.


Fitzgerald, L.F., Swan, S., Magley, V.J. (1997). But was it really sexual harassment? Legal, behavioral, and psychological definitions of the workplace victimization of women. O'Donohue, W. (Ed.), Sexual harassment: Theory, research, and treatment. Needham Heights, MA: Allyn & Bacon.

Lim, S., & Cortina, L. (2005). Interpersonal mistreatment in the workplace: the interface and impact of general incivility and sexual harassment. Journal of Applied Psychology90(3), 483-496.


McDonald, P. (2012). Workplace sexual harassment 30 years on: a review of the literature. International Journal of Management Reviews14(1), 1-17.


Mueller, C. W., Coster, S. D., & Estes, S. B. (2001). Sexual harassment in the workplace:Unanticipated consequences of modern social control in organizations. 
Work and Occupations, 28(4), 411-446. 


National Women's Law Center (NWLC). (2000). Frequently asked questions about sexual harassment in the workplace (Factsheet). Retrieved from


National Women's Law Center (NWLC). (2000). Sexual harassment in the workplace

(Factsheet). Retrieved from


NOLO. (n.d.). Preventing sexual harassment in the workplace (Web article). Retrieved from


Roberts, B.S. & Mann, R. A. (n.d.). Sexual harassment in the workplace: A primer (Web article).

Retrieved from


Rospenda, K., Richman, J., & Shannon, C. (2009). Prevalence and mental health correlates of harassment and discrimination in the workplace: results from a national study. Journal of Interpersonal Violence24(5), 819-843.


Rotundo, M., Nguyen, D., & Sackett, P. (2001). A meta-analytic review of gender differences in perceptions of sexual harassment. Journal of Applied Psychology86(5), 914.


Schneider, K. T., Swan, S., & Fitzgerald, L. F. (1997). Job-related and psychological effects of sexual harassment in the workplace: Empirical evidence from two organizations. Journal of Applied Psychology, 82, 401-415.


U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). (n.d.) Sexual harassment (Web article). Retrieved from


Willness, C., Steel, P., & Lee, K. (2007). A meta-analysis of the antecedents and consequences of workplace sexual harassment. Personnel Psychology60(1), 127-162.

Popular Courses