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It’s Not “Part of the Job”: What Qualifies as Sexual Harassment at Work and How to Stop It

By September 13, 2021February 22nd, 2024Sex Abuse

When I was 19, my boss (a 24-year-old who managed his parents’ small gift shop) asked me out, and I turned him down. One week later, he cornered me in the stock room and tried to kiss me. I dodged him and ran for the door, thankful my keys were already in my pocket so I could jump in my car and drive away.

I dreaded going back for my next shift and spent the evening replaying every move I made. Had I sent him mixed signals? Was I smiling too much? I felt bad for turning him down – was I being too nice to make up for it? Had I not made my disinterest 100% clear in our very awkward conversation?

The trouble here is that I was focused on myself and not the man who, at 24, still didn’t understand what the word “no” meant.

His change in demeanor was immediate. Starting the next day, he wrote me up for not completing regular shift tasks (lie), he wrote me up for being late (lie), and he cut my hours from 30 per week to six.

So I quit, and he won.

A sad (but not surprising) 38% of women experience sexual harassment in the workplace. And 75-85% of those women don’t report it.

I’m one of them, and I’ve got a couple theories as to why:

First, women know that men don’t like to be called out on sexist behavior, and we also know that speaking out often leads to retaliation.We need our jobs to support ourselves and our families – and reporting means we’re putting our paychecks in jeopardy.

Second, and this is perhaps even more critical, we’re unclear on what qualifies as “sexual harassment”. What’s the difference between colleagues joking around and inappropriate remarks that cross a line? Is an unwanted hand on our arm or back the same as an unwanted hand on our butt or breasts?

These questions don’t get easier when your boss is the governor of New York or president of the United States. Women are no safer in government jobs or the entertainment industry than they are in restaurants, corporate offices, and dinky little gift shops in the Midwest.

Women are too hard on themselves and too easy on perpetrators.

“Was I flirting?”

“Maybe I shouldn’t have worn that dress.”

“He’s just friendly/trying to be funny/from another generation…”

The truth is that NONE of these things matter. They don’t excuse the behavior, and they don’t place the blame where it belongs (on him not you).

Trust your gut, ladies. In our decades of legal experience, we have learned this:

  1. If you think something is off, it is.
  1. If you think someone’s behavior is harassment or abuse, it is.

Women downplay their experiences and are able to explain and excuse behaviors that are 100% illegal because that’s what society has taught them to do.

After all, boys will be boys, right?

But here’s what federal law has to say about sexual harassment in the workplace:

  • Under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, workplace sexual harassment is flat-out illegal, and this law applies to employers with 15 or more employees (some state laws have protections for fewer than 15 employees – check your state here). This law also offers protection for employees who are harassed by customers or clients of their employer. While we typically think of harrassers being male and recipients being female or non-binary, all genders can be guilty of (or victims of) harrassment.

  • Quid Pro Quo Harassment occurs when a superior requests sexual favors or activities and threatens action against the inferior if they don’t comply. Examples would include trading sex for a promotion or warning an employee they will lose their job if they don’t go out on a date with their boss.

  • A hostile work environment occurs when an employee is the recipient of unwelcome verbal or physical sexual conduct that makes their job so uncomfortable that the entire environment no longer feels safe or appropriate.

Some behaviors, such as fondling genitals over clothing, rape, or even cornering someone in a small space to try to kiss them are clear violations – but others can be more difficult to determine. Repeated comments about an employee’s appearance or attractiveness, giving unwanted gifts, asking about an employee’s sex life, and even an unwanted hand on your back are all included, no matter how you might try to explain them away.

What should you do if you’ve been sexually harassed at work?

It’s crucial that you speak up! We weren’t having these conversations in 1999 when my boss wouldn’t take no for an answer, and I didn’t know my rights. He went on to make other employees miserable until he got himself into legal trouble in 2003 – but if I had known what to do, I could have protected the women who came after me. So what can you do?

  1. 1. Make it clear to the perpetrator that their behavior is unwanted and inappropriate.
  2. 2. Keep track of everything (and don’t do it on your work computer). Make notes of the time, date, and location of the incident(s), including what was said and done, and who was present.
  3. 3. Contact a lawyer. If you’re worried that you’re in over your head or think you’ll need professional back-up, then find a trusted attorney who specializes in sexual harassment cases.
  4. 4. Report the incident(s) externally to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) or your local EEOC field office. They also have resources that will explain your rights and help you file a charge online. You have 180 days to file a complaint (some states offer extended windows – check your state here), after which, notice will be sent to your employer. The EEOC will decide whether to proceed with mediation or an investigation.

You’re not weak. You didn’t ask for this, and you don’t deserve it. It’s not “part of your job.” Don’t buy into these myths; instead, trust your gut and use your power to make them pay.

It’s illegal, and we have to speak up to make it stop. If you’ve been hurt by workplace sexual harassment, contact us to learn more about your rights and to protect the rights of the other women you work with.