What Is Sexual Harassment?

Now that a national spotlight has been shone on the shocking reality of sexual harassment in entertainment, media, and politics, the conversation needs to turn to the basics.  That requires answering the questions: “What is sexual harassment?” “What are some examples?” and “What should I do about it if I am a victim, witness, or manager?


The United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) defines sexual harassment as “unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical harassment of a sexual nature.”

Harassers can be male or female, young or old, married or unmarried, and coworkers or bosses, so don’t get trapped into stereotypes.

Examples of Sexual Harassment:

  • Displaying or sharing printed or electronic versions of inappropriate sexual images, videos, or messages
  • Gawking or gesturing in a manner that could be interpreted as sexually suggestive
  • Making inappropriate physical contact of a sexual nature
  • Making offensive comments about a person’s gender identity or sexual orientation
  • Making sexual comments about someone’s appearance or clothing
  • Promising something in return for sexual favors
  • Telling vulgar jokes, sharing stories of a sexual nature, or asking about someone’s sexual history

Of course, this is by no means an exhaustive list of examples.

What to Do:

If you are an employee who suspects that you have been sexually harassed, aka an alleged victim:

  • Report your concern to a supervisor or manager immediately.
  • Preserve electronic or printed evidence that is available.
  • Document your conversation if you are not provided with a formal complaint acknowledgment.

If you are a witness to possible sexual harassment, follow the same steps that are provided for alleged victims.

If you are a manager or small business owner to whom sexual harassment has been reported:

  • Take the concern seriously.
  • Immediately conduct detailed interviews with all involved parties: alleged victims, witnesses, and reported parties. All of these interviews should be conducted separately.
  • Document each conversation then collect and preserve any evidence that is relevant to the report.
  • Follow up with each party once a determination has been made about outcome of the investigation.
  • Take appropriate disciplinary action (counseling, probation, suspension, or termination).
  • Do not retaliate against victims and witnesses or condone it from others.

Set the tone in your organization:

Sexual harassment is never acceptable.  This message must be clear and come from the top of your organization.  It should apply to everyone, including leaders.  Actionable steps that your company can take:

  • Make sure that leaders set an example by modeling the desired behavior.
  • Train your staff on how to spot harassment and where to report it.
  • Encourage reporting and do not retaliate against employees who ask questions or share their concerns about harassment.
  • Take allegations seriously and investigate them thoroughly.

Take appropriate action based on investigation results.