Sexual Harassment in the Workplace: Causes & Prevention

August 26, 20210

Sexual harassment in the workplace is a global challenge today. No sector today remains untouched by this menace. Over the last few years, many victims have bravely come forward and reported workplace sexual harassment. As a result, many popular people, who have held positions of authority, have been convicted of sexual harassment charges.

While employers, managers, and supervisors now realize that the problem is real and can have far-reaching consequences, there’s a general lack of awareness on the subject, as well as widespread stigma shrouded around workplace sexual harassment.  

Here in this post, we will shed light on the major causes of sexual harassment in the workplace and ways to prevent it. But first, let’s start with the basics.

What Is Sexual Harassment?  

Sexual harassment, in general, refers to unwelcome sexual advances, physical contact, unsolicited request for sexual favors, and other such physical or verbal conduct, of a sexual nature, that makes a person feel offended, violated, or humiliated.

Here, the word ‘unwelcome’ does not imply ‘involuntary.’ Depending upon the circumstances, for instance, the victim may have had no option but to tolerate an ‘unwelcome’ sexual advance, sex-oriented comment, or a request for a date.    

Sexual harassment does not always have to be ‘sexual.’ Often, it can take the form of intimidation, teasing, bullying, or offensive comments that are based on stereotypes.

Examples of Sexual harassment in the Workplace

Sexual harassment can take many forms in the workplace. It can come from a manager, supervisor, coworker, judge, vendor, client, or customer.

  • Actual/attempted sexual assault
  • Pressurizing someone at work for sexual favors
  • Seeking sexual favors in return for promotion
  • Making sexually suggestive signals, comments, jokes, or remarks while at work
  • Turning work-related discussions into sexual topics
  • Sexual comments about a person’s appearance, clothing, or preferences
  • Sending texts, emails, letters, etc. of sexual nature
  • Sharing or displaying pornography or vulgar content
  • Inappropriate touching of a body part such as touching a person’s neck, patting on the back, hugging, or kissing
  • Asking personal questions about a person’s sex life

Women are the most common target of workplace sexual harassment. But, the problem affects nearly everyone. Men, LGBTQ, and gender-nonconforming workers too are at the receiving end of workplace sexual harassment.

Seeking Help for Sexual Harassment.

Victims of sexual harassment, especially in the workplace, do have legal recourse. Labor laws and various other legislations in countries worldwide protect both men and women against sexual harassment. 140 countries have legislation in place that explicitly prohibits sexual harassment in employment. In most countries, such legal protection is extended to both men & women.

Although workplace sexual harassment is a severe and pervasive issue, unfortunately, most people do not yet fully understand the real nature of the problem, its causes, and consequences, or its extent. In addition, there is a lack of global standards in redress avenues and reporting frameworks to address this problem.

Employers ought to take sexual harassment-related complaints seriously and have them investigated on priority. For instance, in the United States, an employer is legally required to take quick action to stop such behavior when you bring it to their notice; your employer should also provide you with adequate protection against sexual harassment.

You can consult a sexual harassment lawyer and file charges with a government agency, such as the EEOC (Equal Employment Opportunities Commission). Last year, over 6,500 workplace sexual harassment claims were filed with the EEOC in the United States.

Laws pertaining to workplace sexual harassment vary across jurisdictions. Even different states in the US, for instance, have a multitude of sexual harassment prohibitions in place. So, when you are in doubt, it is a good idea to seek professional assistance.     

Causes of Sexual Harassment in the Workplace

Employers and those responsible for managing workplaces can take various steps to create a safe work environment for everyone. But first, they need to understand the major causes of sexual harassment.

  • Abuse of Position and Power

Often, sexual harassment claims arise out of power dynamics at work. For example, senior-level workers abuse, harass, intimidate, or even coerce junior employees into sexual acts in return for professional favors. Some perpetrators in powerful positions within an organization may also threaten their victims with dismissal from the job or other undesirable consequences if they refuse or object to sexual advances.

In some workplaces, inappropriate behavior that easily qualifies as sexual harassment is passed off as ‘normal’ or ‘acceptable.’ While some workers may like to think – ‘Oh, that’s just him, being friendly. He just massaged your neck’ – a woman at the receiving end may genuinely feel violated.

In many cases, sexual harassment stems from a perpetrator’s inclination to indulge in power games in the workplace. Some male workers, for instance, may feel threatened by the growth of female coworkers or be uncomfortable with their independence. So, they may try to prove themselves as superior by harassing women workers.

  • Company Policies and Procedures.

Poorly managed company policies and procedures are also responsible for rising cases of sexual harassment in many workplaces. Often, employers do not pay attention to how well their employees have been sensitized on what constitutes ‘unlawful’ sexual harassment, let alone adopting a zero-tolerance policy towards it.

The absence of a clear policy and a mechanism to file a complaint are among the most common cause of workplace sexual harassment.

Prevention of Sexual Harassment in the Workplace

The following steps can help stem the rise of sexual harassment in the workplace.

  • Regulate conduct in the workplace.

First things first, employers need to draft policies to discourage workplace sexual harassment. They should clarify expectations, define sexual harassment, give examples of inappropriate conduct through seminars, posters, etc. and outline the consequences that will follow if someone is found guilty of violating the policy.

  • Encourage leaders to show good examples.

Companies also need to involve the top leadership and the upper management to prevent workplace sexual harassment. Employees look up to their bosses for inspiration. If the senior management leads by example, it is likely to affect employee behavior positively.

  • Give out appropriate sanctions.

Besides setting a fine example with their own behavior, the leadership should show commitment to the anti-sexual harassment policy and commit to taking a zero-tolerance approach against anyone found indulging in sexual harassment of a coworker, subordinate, customer, client, or customer.

  • Implement preventive measures.

It is also possible to reduce the risk of workplace sexual harassment to some extent by taking precautions such as reducing alcohol intake, implementing a consensual agreement form of (workplace romance) relationships, etc.

  • Continuous training.

Organizations need to do more than just hold annual seminars on this topic. To prevent sexual harassment, they need to train employees on how to detect, discourage, and report it.

  • Develop channels for reporting sexual abuse.

In the absence of a trusted reporting mechanism, victims will never come forward, and perpetrators will continue to exploit more people in the workplace. Therefore, it is absolutely necessary to have a mechanism in place wherein anyone can file a sexual harassment complaint without the fear of any kind of retaliation. In addition, employees should feel comfortable reporting such issues and getting all the support they need from their seniors.

The Final Word on Causes & Prevention of Sexual Harassment in the Workplace

Supervisors, HR managers, and others in senior positions within the company should be trained on how to recognize warning signs of sexual harassment. They should know in clear terms what constitutes sexual harassment and what kind of behavior should be discouraged without delay.  


Stephen I. Azizi, Esq. 

Steven is the Senior Partner and co-founder of Miracle Mile Law Group.

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