What do I do if I’m being sexually harassed at work?

Sexual harassment at work is a serious problem. It can hurt the health and well-being of workers. It can make workers less productive. It can increase employee absenteeism and turnover.

Sexual harassment is any unwanted verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature. It can make you feel embarrassed, offended, intimidated or unsafe and shouldn’t be ignored.

There are two types of workplace sexual harassment. The first type is called “hostile work environment” sexual harassment, and the second is called “quid pro quo” sexual harassment.

Hostile work environment sexual harassment can happen in two ways:

  1. Someone you work with makes you the target of unwelcome sexually suggestive or demeaning comments, repeated and unwelcome requests for dates, offensive gestures, offensive touching, jokes or pranks, intimidating behaviors, or pornographic materials. This behavior is directed at you because of your gender status (because you are a woman, a man, or transgender). These offenses must be severe and/or pervasive. This means that the harassment occurs often enough to affect your ability to do your job well OR the level of harassment is so bad that even one incident is enough to affect your ability to do your job well. You must also show that your employer is responsible for the harassment (either directly or indirectly). This includes conduct by your employer’s customers or vendors. For example, if one of your co-workers or a frequent customer makes offensive remarks, you have to show how your workplace is responsible for allowing their bad behavior.

  2. The other way hostile work environment harassment occurs is if your employer provides less favorable conditions of employment to you than to your different-sex co-workers simply because of your gender status. This can include discriminatory hiring procedures, hours, wages, promotions, work schedules, work assignments, vacation or sick leave benefits, job evaluation, discipline, and termination (firing).

Quid pro quo sexual harassment happens when a supervisor or other manager asks or demands sexual contact from you in return for employment benefits or promotions.

It can still be sexual harassment even if you didn’t say “no.” If you felt pressured to have sexual contact because you were embarrassed to say no, or afraid you would lose your job, or afraid you would be punished at work, then your sexual contact could have been a form of illegal harassment. Your gender status does not have to be the only reason you were singled out for this unfair treatment, but it must be a large part of the reason you were harassed.

What ISN’T Workplace Sexual Harassment?

Many things are considered when a court or government agency decides what is and isn’t workplace sexual harassment. Workplace sexual harassment may be hard to prove in court or to the EEOC if what happened was:

  • Casual jokes or individual and isolated incidents (unless they are very serious, threatening or very offensive.

  • Unreported harassment by a co-worker. A “co-worker” is someone who is not an owner, manager or supervisor at your workplace. This is why reporting the harassment as soon as possible is important. It will then be your employer’s responsibility to deal with the harassment and make it stop. If your employer does not make the harassment stop, then it is workplace sexual harassment.

I Am Being Sexually Harassed at Work. What Should I Do?


- If you think you are being sexually harassed, start keeping a written record of events. Write down:

  • what happened
  • when it happened
  • where it happened
  • what was said or done, and who said or did it
  • who saw what happened, and
  • what you did at that time

Include the names of anyone you spoke with, when you spoke with them, and what action if any, was taken to resolve the problem.

- Where possible, you can make it clear to the person harassing you that their behaviour is unwelcome and that you want it to stop. Say NO effectively and emphatically. It is more important to be firm than polite. If you are more comfortable not speaking to the perpetrator face to face, send an SMS or email. This message and the perpetrator’s reply may also be used as evidence.

- Keep any email or SMS correspondence with the harasser as evidence. Taped evidence is also useful.

- Alert or inform someone whom you trust at the workplace of the harassment. Talk to friends or family members that you trust about the incident. Even if they were not present at the harassment scene, they may be able to support your case as witnesses.

- Where possible, try to resolve the problem through any internal policies or resolution mechanisms that your employer may have. Consult your HR department or, at least, another superior, and give them a chance to help you resolve the situation. If possible, provide them with some concrete evidence of harassment. If you’re in a union, you can contact your union for help. 

If you make an internal complaint, it is always a good idea to do it in writing. Include all details and ask for a written response. Keep a copy of your complaint and any response you may get. It could be helpful later if you decide to take further action.

- Try as hard as you can not to be alone with the harasser, especially avoiding after work functions with the harasser. If you have no other co-workers apart from the harasser and would inevitably have to be alone with the harasser in the office, consider having a recording device handy that you can discreetly turn on. In the cases of team events, try to make sure that you have at least one colleague that you trust around, so that he/she can be your witness, if necessary.

- Seek advice or counselling

It can help to talk to someone you trust and feel comfortable with about how you are feeling. This person could be a family member, friend, work colleague, doctor or healthcare professional.

These services have trained professionals that you can talk to over the phone or online, organise for you to talk to someone face-to-face, or provide information on taking care of your mental health.


- Don’t be unclear about your discomfort.

- Don’t be timid.  It will just fuel the perpetrator’s ego. 

- Don’t make excuses for not complying  (‘Sorry I have a boyfriend’). It is not as effective as saying NO.

- Don’t ignore it. It is unlikely to stop if this is all you do.

Pham Nga