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Workplace Harassment: What to Know and What to Do

Disclaimer: this is by no means a full-run down of what constitutes harassment in the workplace, and every workplace has their own guidelines concerning harassment. Not sure what those are where you work? Ask HR for the full details for your organization.

There’s a sad and often ignored truth about those childhood bullies we all deal with growing up: even though most of them turn into well-adjusted, well-behaved individuals, some of them remain assholes forever. There’s bound to be jerks in every workplace—people who don’t seem to possess the ability to act like a normal, decent human being—but sometimes those workplace jerks are something more.

Workplace harassment is no joke, and it’s not rare, either. From sexual explicit jokes to snide comments about skin color or religious beliefs, harassment turns an office into a place that can be emotionally and physically volatile. Here’s the quick skinny on harassment in the workplace—and what to do if it happens to you.

Sexual Harassment:

For any SHE reading this article, it probably comes as no surprise to hear that 1 in 3 women have sexually harassed in the workplace. Some statistics that may surprise you, though:

  • Of the 1 in 3 women who have been sexually harassed at work, only 29% reported the harassment; 71% did not. This comes from fear of being punished, demoted, disliked, shamed, or further harassed if behavior is
  • Unsure if what happened at work constitutes sexual harassment? You aren’t alone. 16% of women say they haven’t been sexually harassed at work, but can point to specific instances where they experienced sexually explicit or sexist remarks—which actually does count as sexual harassment.
  • The industries with the highest reported levels of sexual assault are the food and beverage and retail industries, which host a total of almost 20 million employees when added together.
  • For LGBT employees, statistics on workplace sexual harassment are harder to track, with most research focusing just on hiring or promotion discrimination in the workplace (21% of LGBT employees have been discriminated against, by the way), but LGBT employees frequently get asked extremely personal questions about their sexual preferences, experiences, and bodies by coworkers and customers.

So, what constitutes sexual harassment?

  • Physical advances including groping, pinching, or hugging: There’s nothing wrong with a hug between coworkers at the end of an office party, but when physical contact goes too far, it’s okay to say so. It’s obvious that grabbing and groping of genitals or personal areas is out of bounds—but so are hugs, shoulder massages, and twirling someone else’s hair in your fingers. If you’re uncomfortable with how your coworker is touching you, you get to say something.
  • Sexual innuendo and verbal advances: Your coworker doesn’t have to grab ass to be an asshat. Words like hottie, sexy, and baby aren’t just demeaning to SHEs in the workplace, they’re sexual harassment, and you don’t have to put up with it. Verbal sexual harassment includes name calling like “whore” or “slut”, and comments about your body. Sexual innuendo is also off limits, so don’t be afraid to tell Rob from accounting to STFU when he asks how big of a pen you can fit in your desk drawer.
  • Questions about your sexuality or sexual experience: This one especially goes out to our LGBT SHEs. No one gets to ask you about who you sleep with, what you like in bed, or when you had your first gay/lesbian experience. They also don’t get to ask you what body parts you have/don’t have/are in the midst of changing—I don’t care if you’re in the middle of transitioning and you’re rocking a James Hardin beard with Coach heels and a J. Crew pencil skirt. Your body is no one else’s business.

Verbal Harassment and Workplace Bullying:

If you thought that your boss calling you a dipshit in the Monday Morning Meeting for forgetting to punch in last week’s numbers is something you just have to live with, think again. Verbal harassment, commonly referred to as workplace bullying, is a huge issue, with 75% of employees saying they’ve been affected by workplace bullying as either a target or a witness. It can be harder to identify verbal harassment in the workplace, because it can take the form of jokes that could—if said by someone you know intimately, love, and have a good repertoire with—be okay, and that employers love to brush off to avoid dealing with a full-on harassment investigation.

What does verbal harassment actually mean?

Verbal harassment can take the form of jokes and jibes against your race, religion, ethnicity, class, and mental and physical abilities. It can be your boss calling you an idiot, your coworker joking that your newly colored brunette hair hopefully raised your IQ 20 points, or your cube neighbor accusing you of being anti-American because of your decision to wear hijab at work.

Remember, you have a right to a safe work environment—and that means emotionally safe, too. You don’t have to put up with classism or ableism or Islamophobia at work, and just because something was said in ignorance or as a “joke” doesn’t mean it isn’t harassment. Power to the people who stand up against hatred, and allow themselves the grace to create a work space as stunningly healthy and happy as they are.

Alright, I know what sexual and verbal harassment are—now what do I do?

If you’re being sexually or verbally harassed at work, first, take a breath. You aren’t alone, and it’s going to be okay. Next, take a minute to internalize that you deserve to have a workplace free of fear and derision. You matter, at work and in the world, and it’s okay to be upset about being harassed at work and to do something about it.

Now for the legal stuff: harassment is a serious issue that can end in the harasser being disciplined, fired, or even arrested. The EEOC (Equal Employment Opportunity Commission) is the group that handles workplace harassment claims, so remember that you have them on your side.

To file an EEOC claim:

  • Keep detailed records of the harassment as it happens (if possible) or write down a detailed account of the harassment that’s happened in the past. Include names, dates, times, exact wording—including as much detail as possible will help the EEOC when they’re investigating your claim. It can be painful to relive and have to share these experiences, but it’s important that you have a record of what happened.
  • File the EEOC claim within 180 days of the incident. It’s important to act fast, and you can file the claim over the phone, in person, or by calling 1-800-669-4000. An important note: your employer is legally prohibited from punishing you for filing your claim by firing you or demoting you. This doesn’t make it totally not-scary to file an EEOC claim, but it should help you remember that, legally, you’re allowed to stand up for yourself.
  • Don’t let anyone or anything make you feel like you didn’t deserve to speak up and stop the harassment. Everyone from your boss to your Uncle Lou is going to have an opinion on what you should or shouldn’t have done, but the bottom line is this: you get to choose what’s comfortable and okay for you in the workplace, and you get to say when something isn’t It doesn’t matter if your BFF would have just told the harasser to buzz off or your mom thinks you should never have started at the company in the first place. You are the queen of your life and your job, and you deserve safety and respect.

Remember that workplace harassment isn’t something you have to deal with or overcome. No one ever became a better employee by being bullied at work, and staying quiet about workplace harassment isn’t a sign of strength. You deserve to feel safe and valued by your boss and coworkers. For more information on workplace harassment, see:

One final suggestion: don’t be afraid to seek support through therapy or support groups after experiencing harassment at work. Even one incident can leave you feeling rattled and unsafe, and there are so many other SHEs willing to help you heal!


SHEs everywhere, this one’s for you!

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