Sexual harassment is a gray area for many workers. What seems like harmless workplace behavior one minute can turn uncomfortable and even dangerous the next. Some employees don’t recognize they’re being sexually harassed until long after the incident happens because they don’t know what constitutes sexual harassment or how to know if that’s what they’re experiencing.



The problem is that sexual harassment can come in many forms, so it’s difficult to have a one-size-fits-all definition of it. It can also happen to anyone, regardless of sex, gender, or sexual orientation. The generally agreed-upon criteria, though, includes sexualized verbal or physical harassment, unwanted sexual advances, and requests for sexual favors— often in exchange for something else.

But sexual harassment can also refer to jokes or comments about a person’s sex, gender, or sexuality. This is something a lot of victims and perpetrators don’t realize.

Harassment must also be frequent or severe enough to create a hostile work environment before it is considered to be unlawful. But to know whether harassment is frequent, one has to know what to look for.

That’s why we’ve compiled these 5 signs you’ve been sexually harassed in the workplace. Some of them are obvious, others more subtle, but all of them can contribute to a hostile or offensive work environment.


1. Unwanted Attention or Physical Contact of a Sexual Nature 

One of the most identifiable signs of sexual harassment is sexually charged behavior that is unwanted by the recipient. It can manifest in small ways, like a passing comment, or in glaring ways, such as a coworker touching a sexual part of your body, such as the butt or crotch.

Some specific scenarios of unwanted attention include, but are not limited to, a client, coworker, or employer:

  • Looking at your body in a way that makes you uncomfortable, such as staring at your breasts or bottom
  • Making sexualized comments or remarks on how you look, such as a catcall
  • Stands too close to you and/or speaks suggestively to you
  • Persistently tries to meet with you alone, especially outside of work
  • Tells you about their sexual experiences and/or asks you about yours
  • Tries to show or discuss with you pornographic or sexually charged media, such as images, videos, songs, or movies

Instances of unwanted sexual contact include, but are not limited to, a client, coworker, or employer kissing, hugging, grabbing, pinching, patting, or touching you. This can be tricky, as some people express platonic affection through hugging or touching the arm, back, shoulder, etc., and other people are not comfortable with physical contact of any kind.

Sometimes, it can be hard to distinguish between innocent behaviors and sexualized ones. The best way to determine if someone’s behavior constitutes harassment is if you consistently feel uncomfortable when they are around or speaking to you and if you think the other person is aware of your discomfort. The person may even like having some sort of power over you and continue their behavior to exert that power.

2. Jokes or Comments About Your Sexuality or Gender

Even if someone isn’t directly sexualizing or pursuing you, they can still sexually harass you in the form of jokes or comments about your sexual experience, sexuality, gender expression, or gender identity. Comments about sexual activity or whether a person conforms to gender “norms” fall under this category of sexual harassment.

This behavior can be in person, online, over the phone, or any other method of communication. If you are receiving unwanted messages, images, or videos of this nature from a colleague, even outside of the workplace, it’s a sign you’re being sexually harassed.

3. Quid Pro Quo

In instances of sexual harassment between two people with an imbalance in power (such as an employee and a supervisor), there can sometimes be a scenario known as quid pro quo, which is Latin for “something in return for something.” It’s an exchange of services, and in this context, it usually constitutes a person requesting sexual favors from someone they have power over, like a subordinate.

These requests are unwelcome, and favors can range from going on a date to having sexual relations. The conditions include something done in return, such as a promotion or other work-related favor. Sometimes, the situation will arise after a “favor” has already been given to the employee, such as allowing them to leave work early for a doctor’s appointment. The employee is then expected to “repay” the favor by doing something of a sexual nature for their “superior.”

The request may also be accompanied by a threat that, should the favor be refused, the employee’s job could be at risk. This creates fear that often prevents the victim from reporting this harassment.

If you are receiving unwanted messages, images, or videos of this nature from a colleague, even outside of the workplace, it’s a sign you’re being sexually harassed.

4. Explicit or Implicit Pressure to “Just Go Along”

Sexual harassment is not always intentional, but if you ask someone to stop a behavior and they don’t, or they pressure you to accept it as just “messing around,” they have crossed a line. The biggest factor in sexual harassment is whether the behavior or attention is unwanted. As soon as you make it clear it’s unwanted, it becomes harassment for that person to continue that behavior. It should not be your responsibility to avoid someone you’ve asked to stop.

If you feel you can’t even ask the person to stop or change their behavior, that’s an indication your work environment is hostile.

5. Speaking Up Could Have Consequences

If you feel uncomfortable about someone’s behavior in the workplace, but you think speaking up will have repercussions, this indicates you are being sexually harassed. The repercussions could include being demeaned or criticized, or they could directly apply to your career and whether you have job security or upward mobility.

If you are chided for having “no sense of humor,” you may feel like you will not be taken seriously or believed if you report the behavior. Other people may try to convince you that “it’s not a big deal.” These dismissals are a sign of a hostile work environment due to sexual harassment.

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Mr. Angueira is an accomplished senior trial lawyer at Swartz & Swartz, P.C., who has obtained record breaking results for his clients. He was admitted to the Massachusetts Bar in 1982 and the New York Bar in 1983. He specializes Employment Litigation, Medical Malpractice, Product Liability, Discrimination, Whistle Blower and False Claims.



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