Written by Avvo Staff

What is workplace sexual harassment?

Unwanted sexual contact in the workplace may constitute sexual harassment, which is illegal under most state and federal laws.
Legal guide image 1453752844

Sexual harassment in the workplace can occur in several ways, regardless of your gender. Whether something legally qualifies as sexual harassment depends on the circumstances.

What is sexual harassment?

Sexual harassment is improper or unwanted behavior of a sexual nature, directed at one person, and found to be offensive by that person. It can occur in two ways.

Quid pro quo sexual harassment

This happens when an employer makes a decision based on the acceptance or rejection of sexual conduct.

For example, your supervisor terminating your employment because you rejected their proposition to engage in sexual intercourse would constitute quid pro quo sexual harassment.

Quid pro quo also occurs when an employer makes sexual conduct a condition of employment.

Hostile work environment

The law does not prohibit teasing or minor incidents on their own, but they can become illegal if the incidents are so frequent or severe that they create an offensive environment.

For instance, if you dread going to your office because someone you work with makes sexual advances every day, you may be experiencing a hostile work environment.

Legal definition of sexual harassment

Sexual harassment is a type of gender discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), the federal agency that enforces anti-discrimination laws in the workplace, defines sexual harassment as “unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature.”

Whether a particular incident of sexual conduct constitutes sexual harassment under the law can depend on your state’s laws, or on the particular court or agency that is evaluating the claim.

The main factors are the nature of the sexual advances, and the context in which the incidents occurred. The frequency or severity of the conduct also play a role.

For instance, hugging may not always be considered sexual harassment. Nonetheless, a court could find hugging to be sexual harassment depending on the context, such as who is doing the hugging and whether the hugging was unwarranted.

Who can sexual harassment affect?

Sexual harassment is often associated with men making sexual advances on women. But sexual harassment can affect men and women alike, and can also occur between individuals of the same sex.

In the workplace, employees may experience sexual harassment from employers, supervisors, coworkers, or even non-employees, such as clients or customers.

In other words, sexual harassment can affect anyone.

What can I do if I believe I am a victim of sexual harassment?

If you believe you have been sexually harassed in the workplace, you should begin documenting the incidents and think about speaking to your employer about it.

You may also wish to file a formal complaint, or address the problem through legal means.

Speaking with an attorney may help you to clarify what your options are, especially given that sexual harassment cases are often affected by individual circumstances.

Free Q&A with lawyers in your area

Can’t find what you’re looking for?

Post a free question on our public forum.

Ask a Question

- or -

Search for lawyers by reviews and ratings.

Find a Lawyer