What is Sexual Harassment in the Workplace?

sexual harassment

Sexual harassment in the workplace has been illegal since 1964. Some forms of sexual misconduct, including rape and sexual assault, are even criminal, but it still happens all too often. If you have been treated differently or faced verbal or physical harassment at work, talk to an experienced sexual discrimination attorney to explore your options and make the harassment stop.

What is Sexual Harassment in the Workplace?

Title VII of the federal Civil Rights Act says it is unlawful to discriminate against or harass an employee or job applicant because of their sex or gender. There are also state-level protections against harassment, but this post will focus on federal law.

The harassment doesn’t have to be sexual in nature, such as displayed images of genitalia or invitations to have sex. Sexual harassment also includes offensive remarks about a person’s sex individually (i.e. “he’s probably still a virgin”) or gender as a whole (i.e. “this isn’t a job for women”). It can affect men, women, and non-binary employees, and can be committed by supervisors, coworkers, and even clients.

Not every passing sexual remark creates the basis for a federal harassment lawsuit or complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Instead, sexual harassment must:

  • Be so frequent or severe that it creates a hostile or offensive working environment
  • Result in an “adverse employment action” (i.e. being fired or passed over for a job or promotion)

Deciding whether those thresholds have been met is one of the most complicated parts of any harassment litigation. You and your attorney should be prepared to demonstrate that:

  • The behavior happened frequently (or was particularly severe)
  • You objected to the comments or behavior when it happened
  • You raised the issue with your supervisor, HR department, or the company owner
  • Your employer failed to take reasonable steps to stop the harassment

Was What You Experienced Sexual Harassment?

Many coworkers are uncertain about whether they have a claim for sexual harassment. Especially in casual or rowdy working environments, it can be hard to find the line between coworkers’ banter and illegal sexual misconduct. If you feel you are being sexually harassed, you probably are. You should speak to a sexual harassment lawyer right away rather than waiting for the harassment to get worse. Sometimes sexual harassment can start out verbal before escalating to physical harassment and ends up in a sexual assault.

Verbal Sexual Harassment

Your boss, supervisor or coworker generally should not be talking about sex at work. Verbal sexual harassment can occur when you overhear offensive sexual jokes or conversation, or where offensive words or requests to engage in sexual acts are directed at you. If any of this is happening, and it makes you feel uncomfortable, you are likely being harassed. You should tell the person who is harassing you to stop, and if they don’t your legal rights may have been violated.

Physical Sexual Harassment

In most industries, there’s no reason for your boss, supervisor, or coworker to touch you in the workplace. Even if they ask for permission, you may be afraid to say “no” because of fear you will be punished or fired. If you are being touched at your job and it makes you feel uncomfortable, your legal rights may be violated.

Quid Pro Quo

Sometimes your boss or supervisor will make it clear that if you want to keep your job or benefits, or get a promotion, you’ll need to accept certain sexual demands, whether that means flirting or performing sex acts. If your employer bases some part of your work or compensation on this kind of quid pro quo sexual arrangement, your legal rights may have been violated.

Sexual Orientation Harassment and Gender Identity Discrimination

In November 2020, the U.S. Supreme Court made it clear that gender discrimination includes misconduct based on a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity. If you have been teased, mistreated, or physically harassed because you identify as LGBTQ+, who you love, how you present your gender identity, or even because someone else thinks you are gay or Trans, your rights may have been violated.


In most cases, you must object or file a complaint with your employer to start your sexual harassment claim. You have the right to make a complaint within your company, and if they don’t act on it, to take your complaint to the EEOC or federal court. You also have the right to stand up for someone else being sexually harassed at work. If you complain, and your employer tries to punish or fire you because of it, your legal rights have been violated.

Take Legal Action Against Harassment at Work

If you have followed your company’s policies, but the harassment in your workplace continues, you can ask a federal court or the EEOC to put a stop to the misconduct. If you and your lawyer can prove you were the victim of gender discrimination and sexual harassment, you may be compensated for:

  • Lost past and future wages
  • Emotional pain and suffering
  • Physical injuries and illnesses caused by the harassment
  • Punitive damages
  • Attorney fees

If you are the victim of harassment or other forms of gender-based discrimination, read “Handling Gender Discrimination in the Workplace” to learn what you can do it about.

By working with an employment attorney and filing a complaint, you can hold your employer accountable, protecting your coworkers from similar harassment, while also receiving monetary compensation for the turmoil you have suffered. Your attorneys can push for policy changes, as well as personal compensation, to help you and your colleagues change your workplace culture.

At Eisenberg & Baum, LLP, we have sexual harassment attorneys ready to help you fight back against sexual harassment in the workplace. If you or a coworker are being targeted with discrimination or sexual misconduct, contact us today to schedule a free consultation.

Categories: Sexual Harassment

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