How To Know If You're A Victim Of Sexual Harassment At Work (& What To Do Next)

You're far from alone.

dealing sexual harassment at work Photo by Sam Burriss on Unsplash

Understanding the basics of navigating sexual situations at work and defining sexual misconduct may help you recognize and address difficult situations.

Recently, Billy Bush (of the infamous Access Hollywood tape fame), while appearing as a guest on The Late Show with Steven Colbert, stated, "It is time to further the conversation." He referred to how we raise boys in our culture. Conversely, women need to support each other in our efforts to speak up and address sexual misconduct.


In an article for CNN, Republican Anna Navarro detailed all of the powerful men accused and subsequently destroyed by sexual misconduct allegations.

She stated, "Changing the culture means this is not about profession or creed or color or sexual orientation or partisan affiliation. Sexual harassment is not about Hollywood versus Washington. It is not about Right and Left. It is about right and wrong. America, letting politicians get away with it, is simply wrong."

That's why it's critically important that every woman be able to identify and address sexual misconduct in the workplace, and why I've compiled this guide to help women do just that.


The definitions are not always clear under the law, and not all incidents of sexual misconduct are equal. Some misconduct is egregious, while some actions constitute sexual innuendo or foolishness.

Specific crimes involving sex include sexual assault, sexual harassment, and sexual abuse. All of these contain specific definitions within the criminal code. 

RELATED: Flirting At Work: When Is It Sexual Harassment?

Sexual harassment creates a hostile work environment.

Sexual tensions that go unaddressed may create a difficult situation in the workplace. A hostile work environment prevents women from thriving at work.

According to the allegations of eight women, Charlie Rose created a hostile work environment with unwanted sexual advances and actions. Women felt they needed to acquiesce and tolerate his sexual advances in order to be part of the team. When women reported the actions to his Executive Producer, Yvette Vega she protected him by saying, “That’s just Charlie being Charlie.”


Now that the allegations are out in the open she regrets her protective behavior. She was quoted in the Washington Post, “I should have stood up for them,” said Vega, 52, who has worked with Rose since the show was created in 1991. “I failed. It is crushing. I deeply regret not helping them.”

Unfortunately, many sexual harassment situations go unaddressed. Women either leave or they continue to work at the company while feeling violated. Some simply adjust their behavior and avoid contact or situations where they are alone with the perpetrator.

This solution is unacceptable, because the perpetrator created a situation where the woman feels that she must stay in that situation to keep her job. Sexual harassment is predicated upon a power dynamic. The perpetrator with power and influence relegates the victim to either tolerating the behavior or leaving the job.

The Department of Labor defines two types of Sexual Harassment situations:


1. Quid Pro Quo Harassment i.e. “This for That”: In this situation harassment results in a specific employment decision based upon the employee’s acceptance or rejection of unwelcome sexual advances or requests for sexual favors. In this situation a supervisor will either deny a promotion to an employee or require an employee to participate as a condition of their employment. In addition, preferential treatment based on sexually cooperative employees is harassment.

2. Hostile Work Environment Harassment: This occurs when unwelcome conduct of supervisors, coworkers, customers, or anyone else the employee must be in contact with on the job creates an atmosphere that is either intimidating or offensive. Examples may include discussing sexual activities, telling off-color jokes about race, sex, disabilities, etc., unnecessary touching, or commenting on physical attributes.

In order to violate the law, the following conditions must be met:

  • It must be unwelcome, subjectively abusive to the person, objectively severe and pervasive enough to create a work environment that a reasonable person would find hostile or abusive.
    Consideration is paid to the frequency and severity of the conduct. Additionally, the conduct must be either physically threatening or humiliating and not a mere offensive utterance. It must effect the employee’s psychological well-being and interfere with work performance.
  • The harasser must be in a superior position of power over the employee.
    “Hostile work environment cases are often difficult to recognize, because the particular facts of each situation determine whether offensive conduct has crossed the line from "ordinary tribulations of the workplace, such as the sporadic use of abusive language ... and occasional teasing, to unlawful harassment."

RELATED: 5 Tips For Handling Office Romance


Sexual assault involves unwanted physical conduct.

According to the Department of Justice definition: “Sexual assault is any type of sexual contact or behavior that occurs without the explicit consent of the recipient. Falling under the definition of sexual assault are sexual activities as forced sexual intercourse, forcible sodomy, child molestation, incest, fondling, and attempted rape”

Each State has its own laws on the books detailing the legal definitions of sexual assault. Force doesn’t always include threatening a woman’s physical safety. It may include emotional coercion or manipulation. A perpetrator may threaten to hurt the victim’s family or other intimidation tactics. Unfortunately, 7 out of 10 sexual assaults are committed by someone known to the victim.

The umbrella of sexual misconduct covers many interactions.


The definitions above constitute illegal actions. But some actions are less intrusive or not clearly defined, such as an occasional off-color joke, or the silly gesture that goes too far. What are women’s responsibilities in the light of the definitions and the obvious sexual tensions in the workplace?

Strategies for addressing the sexual tensions at work:

1. Find a guy at work sexually attractive?

Be careful! It isn’t fair for a woman to behave provocatively at work and come-on to a coworker. Be aware, office romances can go bad very quickly. If you determine that the relationship is worth pursuing, find another job. Be out in the open with your intentions and the status of the relationship. If the relationship goes south, either of you might paint the circumstances in a different light creating a difficult situation.


2. Don’t behave in a flirtatious manner at work.

Keep your interactions professional, not provocative. If tempted to use your sexuality to manipulate the situation, assess your own motivations. Be cordial not sexy. Make a conscious, strategic decision about how you want to be perceived at work. Your demeanor and clothing can send out mixed messages. It is important to be clear about your purpose at work. If a superior wants to have a meeting in his hotel room, suggest another venue.

RELATED: The Actual Definitions Of Sexual Abuse & Sexual Harassment For People Who Think The Rules Have Changed

3. If a coworker makes unwanted sexual advances, do the following.


Immediately state your boundary. That means simply say, “I am not interested, please do not go any further or do that again” or say “I am offended by that comment, please don’t say anything of that nature again.” Be cordial and friendly, but emphatic.

Document the action with the date, time, place, and exact events without any embellishment. If the action is egregious, touching or forceful, immediately document it and call Human Resources. Some actions may be unintentional and may simply need you to set a clear boundary.

Others may need intervention by the professionals in Human Resources. The worst nightmare for HR professionals is a sexual predator who is allowed to run amok within an organization. This puts the organization at financial risk.

4. Reread the definitions above. 


Remember you may also fall under scrutiny, if you allow the activity to continue. In addition to protecting yourself, sharing knowledge protects other women from experiencing harassment or assault.

5. Keep it light, and don’t look for predators or perverts.

Men are often trying to be friendly and may not be savvy or aware that they are being offensive. If you state your boundary in a friendly, non-confrontational manner they will probably apologize and not repeat the offensive behavior. You will be able to tell from their response if their remorse or embarrassment is real.


It is time for us to be clear about simple inappropriate gestures or actions versus those of serial sexual predators. Well-intentioned men may act in ways that are outside of their values or your preferences. If they do not respond to a simple “Hey, I don’t like that”, then they are not well-intentioned.

It is not appropriate to get mad, tell your friends, and then determine that you were abused, assaulted, or harassed. The outcome will not be that you are vindicated because your actions and demeanor will also be under scrutiny. If you get mad or feel uncomfortable, let that person know.

6. Be aware, be careful, and be willing to speak your mind immediately.

If a man places his hand on your body, and you are uncomfortable, say something. If someone says something that offends you, speak up. Letting things fester helps neither you nor the other person. They need to know they behaved in an offensive manner.


It is our responsibility to speak up when abused, assaulted, or harassed. Personal accountability requires us to express our displeasure with the actions. Use your best resource, your clear voice stating a specific boundary. Silence creates an environment conducive to inappropriate sexual actions or tensions.

7. Finally, don’t “cry wolf."

Let’s be real, we all make mistakes or do inappropriate things, so don’t blow a small incident out of proportion. Women who have truly been assaulted, abused, or harassed need our support, not false accusations.

Coaching can help you find your voice and learn how to speak up. Pat Magerkurth is a coach with over 30 years experience navigating the workplace. She can help you understand and address workplace challenges. Contact her at