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What you need to know about Workplace Sexual Harassment

What Constitutes Workplace Sexual Harassment?

Sexual harassment is defined as behaviour of a sexual nature that is likely to cause harassment, alarm or distress to another party (Tripartite Advisory on Managing Workplace Harassment).

Workplace sexual harassment is not limited to the confines of an office environment. Any misconduct during a work-related activity such as a company function, corporate event, team-building exercise, or out-of-town business trip can constitute sexual harassment. AWARE’s 2008 Research Study on Workplace Sexual Harassment found that 20% of sexual harassment incidents occurred outside the office but during work-related business activities like office parties, lunch outings, client entertainment or team-building events.

The harassers need not necessarily be colleagues at work; they can be clients, suppliers, or peers from outside the company.

Harmless flirting between consensual parties is NOT sexual harassment. However, when the feelings are no longer mutual and one party persists even though the other party makes it clear that he or she is no longer interested, the other party may be deemed to have crossed the line.

Sexual harassment can consist of repeated or singular acts that cause the victim(s) to feel uncomfortable and unsafe. It can be verbal, visual and/or physical:

  1. Verbal Sexual Harassment refers to sexually suggestive remarks, or obscene or insulting sounds. It includes unwelcome and offensive names or terms of endearment such as ‘honey bun’ or ‘boobsy’. Other examples of sexual harassment include:
    • Cat calls, kissing sounds, howling and smacking lips
    • Unwanted sexual teasing, jokes, remarks, or questions
    • Referring to an adult as a girl, hunk, doll, babe, or honey
    • Whistling at someone
    • Sexual comments about a person’s clothing, anatomy or looks
    • Turning work discussions to sexual topics
    • Sexual innuendos or stories
    • Asking about sexual fantasies, preferences or history
    • Telling lies or spreading rumours about a person’s personal sex life.
  2. Visual Sexual Harassment is an assault to the sense of sight where someone exposes his or her private parts or repeatedly stares at another person’s body parts in a way that is offensive or uncomfortable for that person. Being made to look at sexually explicit images or being shown obscene sexual gestures may constitute sexual harassment. Some examples of visual sexual harassment are:
    • Obscene or unwanted sexual looks or gestures
    • Unwanted letters, telephone calls, or materials of a sexual nature
    • Emails, text messages, lewd wallpapers or screen savers on computers, nude calendars.
  3. Physical Sexual harassment is the act of being brushed against, hugged, kissed or touched in any way that is unwelcome and discomforting. It could also refer to being forced to touch someone. Some examples of sexual harassment are:
    • Actual or attempted rape or sexual assault
    • Unwanted pressure for sexual favours
    • Unwanted deliberate touching, leaning over, cornering, or pinching
    • Unwanted pressure for dates
    • Touching an employee’s clothing, hair or body in an inappropriate and non-consensual manner
    • Touching or rubbing oneself sexually around another person
    • Making sexual gestures with hands or through body movements.

Types of Workplace Sexual Harassment

There are two types of sexual harassment:

  • Quid pro quo harassment refers to sexual blackmail, where the harasser demands sexual favours, forcing the recipient to choose between acceding to lewd requests or risk losing out on salary increases, promotions or even the job itself. This is an example of power play at work and an abuse of authority.
  • Hostile Sexual Environment is created when the behaviour of management or co-workers causes severe stress to the employee, rendering him or her unable to reasonably perform his or her tasks adequately. An example would be lewd sexual actions, manners or pictures exhibited, tolerated and supported by management or co-workers.

Effects of Workplace Sexual Harassment

Victims of sexual harassment feel intimidated, ashamed, angry and humiliated, and find it difficult to continue working under such circumstances. Sexual harassment may be traumatic for some and leave long term psychological effects.

Sexual harassment creates an unhealthy working environment.  Employees’ morale is affected and work productivity decreases when employees are distracted by emotional or psychological abuse and concerns about their job security.

Support for Victim 

It is important for victims of sexual harassment to process their feelings about their experience. Sexual harassment can be traumatic and may give rise to long term adverse psychological effects. Victims of harassment may experience a range of emotions, including confusion, humiliation, fear, anger, isolation and guilt.

For advice on how victims can deal with a harasser in the workplace, visit AWARE’s Sexual Assault Care Centre website.