Identifying Sexual Harassment in the Workplace

Everything from “locker room” style conversations to physical sexual advances can be considered workplace sexual harassment.

Posted by Joe Gerard in Harassment, Human Resources on June 28th, 2010

Everything from “locker room” style conversations to physical sexual advances can be considered workplace sexual harassment. Determining the boundaries of the “fine line” between what is and what isn’t considered sexual harassment can become a nightmare for HR departments and those responsible for creating workplace policies. To make things even more challenging, the stereotypical male-on-female sexual harassment is no longer a company’s only concern. As mentioned in our post “Sexual Harassment Against Men in the Workplace,” male-on-male and female-on-male sexual harassment is a growing concern in the workplace.

With more men speaking out than ever before, employers need to create policies that clearly define sexual harassment and provide training to all employees. Employers need to make it clear that any form of sexual harassment from either gender will be taken seriously, dealt with in the same manner and is strictly prohibited in the workplace.

Types of Harassment

The harassment men face in the workplace can present itself in forms different from those faced by women. Although men may face physical force from females or other males in the workplace, the most confusing area of male on male sexual harassment is related to “locker room humor.”

In the MSNNBC article, “Male Sexual Harassment is Not a Joke,” by Eve Tahmincioglu, she writes about some of the stereotypical responses given when men speak about sexual harassment, such as in the case below:

“Thomas, who works in academia but didn’t want his full name used, found himself in an office made up of mainly women who would routinely share and copy each other emailed jokes and emails about men. A few, he adds, ‘made fun of men’s unique anatomy, if you know what I mean.’ The behavior, he says, made him feel isolated. When he finally addressed the matter with the women in the office, ‘the women were stunned, generally with a ‘You’ve got to be kidding,’ kind of attitude. And they kept doing it’.”

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Unfortunately, this response is all too frequent when it comes to men speaking up about situations that make them uncomfortable. Although this example isn’t exactly a form of sexual harassment, it depicts the very reality of some people’s opinions surrounding sexual harassment targeted at men.

According to the EEOC:

“Sexual conduct becomes unlawful only when it is unwelcome. The challenged conduct must be unwelcome in the sense that the employee did not solicit or incite it, and in the sense that the employee regarded the conduct as undesirable or offensive. When confronted with conflicting evidence as to welcomeness, the Commission looks at the record as a whole and at the totality of circumstances evaluating each situation on a case-by-case basis.”

This definition from the EEOC helps determine the barriers for “crossing the line” when it comes to actions that could potentially be considered sexual harassment. The fact that claims are handled on a case by case basis is extremely important, as the circumstances vary depending on the involved parties and their relationship to each other. The EEOC provides the public with guidance and examples of situations involving sexual harassment. An interesting example they bring forward, that I have slightly added to, is the fact that in some cases:

“The courts and the Commission have considered whether the complainant welcomed sexual conduct by acting in a sexually aggressive manner, using sexually-oriented language, or soliciting the sexual conduct. If the plaintiff regularly uses vulgar language, initiates sexually-oriented conversations with her (or his) co-workers, asks male (or female) employees about their marital sex lives and whether they engaged in extramarital affairs and discussed their own sexual encounters. In rejecting the plaintiff’s claim of ‘hostile environment’ harassment, the court found that any propositions or sexual remarks by co-workers were prompted by their own sexual aggressiveness and sexually- explicit conversations.”

Example from a Company Policy

It’s important that harassment towards both males and females is addressed in company policies. When preparing or updating policies, take into consideration the different forms of sexual harassment- as you can see from the examples above, sexual harassment spans much further than sexual advances and inappropriate gestures. Provide examples of each type of sexual harassment to help employees understand what is and isn’t acceptable behaviour.

Here is an example of an anti-harassment policy that can be found in the Tyco Guide to Ethical Conduct, available on the company’s corporate website:

“All of us have the right to work in a harassment-free environment. The company regards harassment as any behavior that may demean, intimidate or offend an individual. To promote a positive workplace, we must avoid the following behaviors:

  • Unwelcome conduct – whether verbal, physical or visual, and whether committed in person or some other way (e.g., via e-mail) – that is based on a person’s protected status. Protected status includes, but is not limited to, race, color, religion, gender, age, national origin, disability, sexual orientation, genetic information and veteran status
  • Racial, ethnic, religious, or sexual jokes
  • Bullying, abusive language, physical aggression, intimidating or violent behavior, or disparaging comments
  • Sexual advances or requests for sexual favors
  • Any other actions that unreasonably disrupt or interfere with an employee’s work performance

Our Harassment-Free Workplace policy applies to all Tyco employees and contractors, plus anyone who does business with Tyco, including business partners, customers and suppliers. This policy also applies to work-related settings and activities outside of the workplace.”

The policy at Tyco makes it clear that anyone involved in Tyco operations is held accountable for upholding the policy created by the company. By doing this, Tyco had broadened their policy to address sexual harassment of all types and from both genders.


Joe Gerard
Joe Gerard

CEO, i-Sight

Spend my days showing off the i-Sight investigative case management software and finding ways to help clients improve their investigations. Usually working with corporate security, HR & employee relations, compliance and legal teams.

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