Butt grabbing, persistent requests for dates and inappropriate touching at work clearly constitute sexual harassment. But the signs of sexual harassment aren’t always so flat-out obvious and can include name-calling, inappropriate mass emails and your co-worker sharing unwelcome details about his sex life.In 2011, 11,364 complaints of sexual harassment were made to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission; 84 percent of those complaints were filed by women. Another survey of 782 United States workers conducted by Louis Harris and Associates found that 100 percent of the women who had reported harassment said they’d been harassed by men.
“Harassment generally occurs in environments that are unfriendly to women in a broader sense,” says Caren Goldberg, Ph.D., a human resource management professor at American University in Washington, D.C., who has served as an expert witness on many sexual harassment and discrimination cases. “When unpleasant things happen at work you just sort of shrug it off as a ‘boys will be boys’ reaction without realizing that, ‘Hey it’s not OK that boys will be boys.’”In a society where TV shows turn sexual harassment into a punch line for our viewing pleasure and people are quick to blame the female for the male’s egregious behavior, it’s almost as if this type of behavior has become the norm. And as a result, many of us have become numb to it.It’s time to wake up. Here are some of the less obvious signs of sexual harassment so you can identify whether it’s happening to you and take steps to stop this unwanted and unwarranted behavior. The American Association of University Women offers specific strategies for victims of sexual harassment here.
1. Your boss calls you and the other women in the office names.
According to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission: “Harassment does not have to be of a sexual nature and can include offensive remarks about a person’s sex.” For example, if you and other female employees are called offensive names in the workplace but male employees are not, that could be sex-based harassment even if the name-calling has no sexual content, explains attorney Adam Carter, a principal at The Employment Law Group in Washington D.C. In fact, sexual harassment is considered a form of sex discrimination. This isn’t restricted to any particular combination of genders either. “If a manager belittles and berates only the men who work for him (or her), that also might be illegal harassment,” notes Carter.
2. Your co-worker is always talking about his sex life and even hits on customers.
While sexual harassment certainly includes unwelcome sexual propositions or groping, Carter says it also extends to any sexually oriented behavior that is unwelcome to an employee and creates a hostile work environment. “The behavior needn’t be intentionally offensive, and it needn’t be directed at the employee who complains—or at anyone specific, for that matter,” he points out. For instance, if there are Sports Illustrated calendars and Playboy magazines scattered around the office that make you extremely uncomfortable, that could be a form of sexual harassment. Or if a creepy co-worker frequently talks about his own sexcapades and whistles and winks at customers and passers-by, that could fall under sexual harassment as well. “Whether such behavior would count as sexual harassment varies from case to case, though,” notes Carter.
3. The harassment is one big joke to everyone except you.
Did you know that sexual harassment doesn’t have to be explicit in nature but can include seemingly harmless—to others at least—nonverbal gestures as well? Goldberg recounts one case she had involving a woman who worked in an environment with hazardous chemicals where everyone was required to wear a jumpsuit (think a onesie “Breaking Bad” style). At one point, one of her male co-workers unzipped his suit in front of her. Although he had clothes on underneath, she found this offensive. The woman told him so and also reported it to human resources. “In response, all the men in her department started making unzipping gestures, so what started out as a momentary brief incidence turned into this huge thing where they were almost mocking the offense,” Goldberg said. While the initial unzipping may or may not count as sexual harassment, the continuous mocking and mass participation afterwards definitely would.
4. Your co-worker or boss sends out inappropriate mass emails.
Thanks to technology, harassers are finding brand new ways to behave offensively. Inappropriate e-mails—including sexual jokes and images—have become very common, according to Carter. Cyberstalking also allows managers and co-workers to invade an employee’s private life. “Camera phones can be used to take inappropriate photos, and new surveillance technologies can be even more intrusive,” he remarks. However, if you are being sexually harassed, technology can be used to your advantage, too. “Using a camera phone to record offensive behavior—as long as it won’t cause more trouble—can help force your company to take action,” notes Carter.