What Is Sexual Harassment?

Unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature constitute sexual harassment when one or more of the following is true:

Some important facts to remember about sexual harassment are:

When is sexually based conduct sexual harassment? Attraction between employees should be a private matter between the employees, so long as it does not cross the boundary between welcome conduct and harassment. To determine whether sexual conduct in the workplace amounts to sexual harassment, distinctions must be made between sexual advances that are:

Types of sexual harassment. Sexual harassment can take several forms. The two most common forms are described as quid pro quo sexual harassment and hostile work environment sexual harassment.

Quid pro quo harassment. Quid pro quo is Latin for "something for something" or "this for that." When an employee is asked, either directly or indirectly, to submit to a sexual advance in exchange for some benefit at work (such as a promotion or a pay advance), quid pro quo harassment has occurred. Only supervisors or managers can engage in this type of harassment since it requires the authority to grant a job favor in return for the unwelcome advance or request.

Hostile work environment harassment. When harassment makes the workplace intolerable because constant sexual or gender-based activity or comment interferes with an employee's ability to do his or her job, hostile work environment sexual harassment has occurred. This type of harassment can be committed by coworkers or supervisors because it does not require any authority to create such an environment. The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that sexual desire or attraction need not play a part in hostile work environment harassment; a hostile work environment may be found, for example, when employees tease and torment another employee of the same sex unmercifully for reasons relating to the employees physical attributes, love life, etc.

Other forms of sexual harassment. Sexual favoritism can give rise to complaints of sexual harassment. If one employee is granted a promotion in return for sexual favors, other male and female coworkers can allege sexual harassment by showing that they were denied an equal opportunity for promotion because of the improper sexual conduct.

Customers, vendors, or other third parties can also engage in sexual harassment. If you, as the business owner, have some degree of control to stop the behavior, that harassment can be your problem as well. If an employee complains that a customer is making unwelcome sexual advances, you are obligated to tell the customer to stop.

Common situations that may involve sexual harassment include:

Are gender harassment and sexual harassment the same? There are forms of harassment that are gender-based but are nonsexual in nature. Gender-based harassment is harassment that would not have occurred but for the sex of the victim. It lacks sexually explicit content but is directed at one sex and motivated by animus against that sex, whether female or male.


A comment like "You're a woman, what do you know?" may amount to gender-based harassment even though it does not carry a sexual connotation.

Once you understand harassment in theory, you need to figure out how to prevent it, how to deal with it if it does happen, and what your state's laws require you to do to prevent it.