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How to Spot Sexual Harassment: 5 Subtle Warning Signs

How to Spot Sexual Harassment: 5 Subtle Warning Signs

Although movies and TV shows would have us believe that workplace sexual harassment is dramatic, scandalous, and obvious (and that karma always comes back to bite the harasser), it’s not so easy to tell when you or your coworkers are being harassed in real life.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), the federal agency that oversees the enforcement of sexual harassment laws, defines harassment as:

“Unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature constitutes sexual harassment when submission to or rejection of this conduct explicitly or implicitly affects an individual’s employment, unreasonably interferes with an individual’s work performance or creates an intimidating, hostile, or offensive work environment.”

Despite the wordy definition, it can be difficult to spot and report sexual harassment because it looks so different from one situation to another.

Harassment can be anything from verbal comments to physical touch or even sexual gestures and glances, each ranging in severity. One victim’s story can be completely distinct from another’s, which can make would-be whistleblowers doubt themselves when deciding to come forward.

The EEOC also considers frequency when reviewing harassment.

Except in the most egregious cases, the more often the behavior happens, the more likely the EEOC will agree that it’s sexual harassment. When an incident only happens once or a handful of times, you may know that you’ve seen harassment, but you might have a harder time convincing the federal government of that.

Plus, there’s no “bright line” legal test for sexual harassment.

When reviewing cases, courts consider whether a “reasonable person” would call it harassment. This is tricky because people in different industries have different tolerance levels for sexual comments and behavior. A person working in a writer’s room for a raunchy TV show is going to have a very different expectation of their coworkers than a person working at an accounting firm.

Who is the “reasonable person” a judge is supposed to hold in their mind when deciding a case?

All this is made even more confusing when you consider that some people may not realize their behavior is harassing.

Ignorance doesn’t excuse harassment, but when people of different generations, backgrounds, and perspectives all work together, it’s easy to see how a harmless compliment to one person can be discrimination to another.

Is your coworker a sexist predator or a well-meaning but old-fashioned geezer—or somewhere in between? These gray areas can make victims doubt themselves and wonder if the harassment is all in their head.

The clearest way to tell if sexual harassment is happening in your workplace is, obviously, to see or experience it. A harasser might:

  • Make sexist comments and generalizations, like “women aren’t as good at math as men”
  • Touch you without asking or encroach upon your personal space
  • Comment on your appearance
  • Ask for sexual favors in exchange for a raise or to keep your job
  • Whistle or make sexual gestures at you
  • Talk about their sex life or ask you about yours
  • Send you pornographic photos, videos, or messages
  • Give you sexual gifts, like lingerie
  • Display sexual photos for everyone to see

In many cases, the harassment is ongoing and there may be multiple victims. But remember: there are lots of factors at play that can make it difficult to decide without a doubt that you’ve seen or experienced harassment.

It can be helpful to look beyond the behavior in question for other harassment warning signs. If you’re not sure whether you should Call a Lawyer (Call a lawyer IS A LINK TO OUR CONTACT PAGE), here are five subtle signs that may point to a discriminatory workplace:

Warning Sign #1

No one has successfully reported sexual harassment before.

By law, employers of a certain size are required to have sexual harassment prevention and reporting procedures. But there are few requirements for what those procedures have to look like. Your company may discourage reporting by gliding over sexual harassment training for new hires, making company harassment policies confusing, or not taking reports seriously.

If someone has managed to file a report but the allegation was swept under the rug (or, even more alarming, the reporter was fired or retaliated against), it may be a sign that your company has put obstacles in place that protect harassers and make it difficult for victims to come forward.

Warning Sign #2

Shifts are divided along gender lines.

If you’re working shifts at a restaurant, hotel, or retail store, take a look at who is working when. Are people of one gender usually given less-than-ideal shifts? Or does the creepy manager always make sure that a certain subordinate is working with them?

If you notice a pattern, or you feel that your shifts are assigned based on different criteria than everyone else, it may be related to the harassment you’ve witnessed or experienced.

Warning Sign #3

There’s a “boys’ club.”

Is there a group that clearly runs the show? Perhaps upper management is all men, or there’s a clique that has sway in the company. They might create an intimidating, us-versus-everyone-else culture and wield their power to get what they want.

This kind of behavior is a breeding ground for sexual harassment, and members of the club may be inclined to protect one of their own. If you or other coworkers have observed this, it may be more evidence that harassment is happening.

Warning Sign #4

Body language tells a different story.

Your body might recognize harassment before you do. Notice how you and your coworkers look when interacting with a possible harasser. Is it easy to make eye contact, or are your eyes downcast? Is your body relaxed and open, or do you immediately cross your arms and shrink?

If you notice yourself or coworkers reacting this way, it might be a sign that, at least subconsciously, the harasser is making you uncomfortable. It’s something to think about if you’re debating Calling a Sexual Harassment Lawyer.

Warning Sign #5

There’s a culture of fear.

Finally, listen to your gut. Do you feel uncomfortable at work all the time? Do you get a sinking feeling in your stomach when you run into a certain coworker? Is there a clear division between coworkers? Is there an air of punishment, silencing, or fear?

It may not just be a bad job—it could be hostile work environment sexual harassment. Although emotions won’t hold up in a court of law, they will point you toward inappropriate behavior.

If you still aren’t sure whether sexual harassment is happening in your workplace, a lawyer can help you determine if you have enough to file a complaint.

Our experienced sexual harassment lawyers will offer a free, confidential consultation, so you have nothing to lose. It’s better to find out that you don’t have a claim than it is to stay silent and let the possible harassment continue.   Call Us 877.858.8018 or Connect Online

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