Defining Sexual Harassment at Work

Sexual Harassment can come in many forms. As the victim it’s important you understand that it’s how you interpret the behaviour you have experienced that matters. It’s not your colleague’s, your boss’s or even the HR department’s perception of the incident that counts. Good organisation policies on harassment will make it clear that this is the case.

So some thoughts on how you might describe and personally manage any sexual harassment at work.

  1. Go with your gut… if you feel uncomfortable or are left questioning an action, take time to reflect on it as soon after the event as possible. We do not all react in the heat of the moment; sometimes we are too shocked, sometimes it was so subtle we need to relive it in our minds again to confirm how it made us feel. Other times we are distracted as our focus was caught up in a work related task. However, all of this does not mean an act of sexual harassment didn’t occur.


  1. Consider your approach. This is where knowing your strengths and weakness and your own personal foibles can help you. For example, do you often react in the heat of the moment and live to regret it or are you more known for being introverted and not making a fuss? Either way reflecting on this and how others might perceive your report in advance can be important.

So as the reader you are now thinking, ‘wait… hang on it’s all about me? I thought this was about the sexual harassment that happened to me, I didn’t ask for a personality assassination.’ We get that. However, rightly or wrongly, your reactions and behaviour in the earliest moments after the sexual harassment incident could change the trajectory of your life.  Whether that be an unreported hidden act that years later you seek counselling for or difficult tension at work between colleagues in the months after reporting the event. Either way, it is acknowledged that you did not ask for this behaviour, nevertheless, it will be important to demonstrate that you are credible, serious and clear about the unacceptability of the incident.

Therefore, if you accept this point, if you do happen to be a quieter more restrained individual having an effective direct voice will show that this is very serious matter for you and your company and that you require the report to be followed up with professionalism and immediacy. If you are on the other side of the scale, keeping your cool and managing your emotions whilst speaking in a restrained compelling manner, will equally ensure you are to be taken seriously and that it is clear you consider action should be taken without delay.

  1. It might help, to go over in your head, or write down if it’s easier, the sequence of events and then use a ‘scale of unacceptability’ to help you define the act(s) of sexual harassment. Something like the below;-
    1. “I am now afraid to be in a room with this person: the behaviour was clearly indicating intention and expectation. It was either or all; manipulative, threatening and/or an attempt at being sexually persuasive.”
    2. “It was disgusting and blatant conduct: crude, vile, language and behaviour with undertones clearly related to sexual harassment and overall completely unacceptable in the workplace. The buffoon thinks they are being funny whilst testing boundaries.”
    3. “Obvious sustained personal interest; directed comments and behaviour towards me. I am getting unwanted attention that makes me feel uncomfortable, even if the language and body language appears to be innocent.
      1. For example, the perpetrator just slightly breaches my physical barriers; often standing or sitting too close to me, very slightly touching me either accidentally or meaningfully by grazing my hand, back or otherwise. The perpetrator might believe they are trying to be friendly, however, I don’t see it as such. I have asked them to ‘back off’ politely but they still don’t seem to change their behaviour.
      2. Additionally (or separately), they overly ask for my opinion on work matters; texting me and emailing at times with unrelated work matters or small questions attempting to draw me in to conversation.”
    4. “Subtle signals only I would notice. It made me feel uncomfortable irrespective if others didn’t notice.” For example ‘Licking their lips with a menacing look on their face whilst reversing in the car park’ or saying ‘Sign here gorgeous with a meaningful look’ when they drop the post off each morning.”
  2. Reporting sexual harassment at work is hard yet brave. Even though it’s thought to be easier now since the MeToo movement it’s still controversial and will not be plain sailing for anyone when they do report it. If you do, expect to be required to make a statement on record for your organisation and for anyone you accuse, likely to be suspended from work whilst the investigation goes on. Any reasonable employer should do this to protect you and others from further harassment. Be prepared to follow through, it won’t do anyone least of all you any good if you don’t go the distance. However, of course that is within the limits of fairness and what a reasonable employer would expect of you following your report.


  1. Have or request copies of your organisation’s harassment policy and anything specific to sexual harassment or ‘dignity at work’. Have handy also the ‘victimisation’ policy and be conversant with it. Victimisation is where someone receives further detrimental treatment as a result of making a grievance or accusation such as sexual harassment. For example, being performance managed in the weeks or months after your report or even being passed over for promotion because of the perception of being a ‘trouble maker’.


If you have any questions about how to handle sexual harassment or victimisation and your rights, download the HRSolver app today and chat to our HRGurus who are experienced in supporting employees during these times.

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