Sexual Harassment at Work: 13 Red Flags You Should Take Seriously

Three out of five women report being targets of sexual harassment—and nearly 70 percent of victims were harassed in a professional or work setting, according to a 2018 Pew Research Center analysis. There can be a fine line between casual office banter and inappropriate behavior; these are the signs someone is crossing the line.

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Emails with vulgar or suggestive language

Under the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) guidelines, sexual harassment at work can include “unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical harassment of a sexual nature.” This goes for written correspondence, as well. An off-the-cuff email saying “Looks like someone’s not getting any lately” may seem harmless, but it never belongs in a professional setting. Elaine Howell, head of HR services at PlusHR, suggests raising your concern about an email with the sender before speaking with a manager, if possible. Doing so allows for a potential misunderstanding to be fixed, she says. Watch out for these 6 toxic phrases in work emails, too.

Persistent invitations

Repeatedly asking someone on a date or requesting sexual favors—especially after they have turned down previous attempts—is a clear sign of sexual harassment at work. Yet between 87 to 94 percent of employees experiencing harassment do not file a formal complaint, according to a 2016 report by the EEOC. “The difficulty for some is that raising an issue that may be seen as harmless banter by others—including management—can label them a trouble maker,” says Kerry McGowan, managing director of The HR Specialists Consultancy. For those who fear retaliation or work in offices without reporting procedures, you can file a complaint through the EEOC free of charge. Find out more secrets your HR department isn’t telling you.

Asking questions about a colleague’s sex life

If personal questions from a colleague make you squirm, it could be considered sexual harassment. “Even a casual comment—’How was your weekend?’—can be sexualized by gestures or body position to make it offensive and uncomfortable,” says Ellen Bravo, coauthor of The 9-to-5 Guide to Combating Sexual Harassment. You are never required to answer intrusive questions about your personal life or to share private information about other colleagues, regardless of the questioner’s position in the company. Report any such incident through the proper channels.

Displaying offensive or graphic material

Sexual harassment at work does not always affect just one victim, according to experts. A cubicle displaying graphic material can make the entire workplace feel uncomfortable. “What one person may find unimportant or even humorous, may be seen by another as offensive,” Howell says. Don’t hesitate to speak up if someone’s office décor gives you pause; your job and reputation should never be on the line for raising concerns, no matter how small. In fact, “retaliation for reporting sexual harassment is against the law,” according to Sheerine Alemzadeh, co-founder of Healing to Action, an organization that addresses gender violence at work. Learn to know all the subtle signs you’re dealing with a toxic work environment.

Lewd comments on an employee’s appearance

While some inappropriate conduct in the office is more subtle, it can still be defined as harassment under official guidelines. Remarks like, “Wow, I can’t take my eyes off you in that dress!” fall into this category, according to Bravo. “These are behaviors that make you feel creeped out but are less explicit in content and intent,” such as persistent compliments or even criticism about a colleague’s appearance or clothing, she says. Although retaliation for reporting harassment is illegal, upwards of 70 percent of employees experience retaliation when they report, Alemzadeh says. The #TimesUp Legal Defense Fund raises money to provide legal help for victims in these situations.

Unwelcome physical contact

Boss sexual harassing to blonde secretary at workplaceDavid Pereiras/Shutterstock

From giving a hug to bumping shoulders in the hall, any physical contact between two employees should always be consensual. Intimacy that violates your professional relationship with a colleague must be addressed by HR immediately. That said, “it’s always good to know the company’s policies on a range of issues before you need to use them,” Bravo says. She recommends reading up on your employer’s policy and any channels for raising concerns as soon as you are hired. If the company does not have a policy, Bravo suggests speaking to a manager you trust about creating one.

Promises or threats in exchange for sexual favors

Demands for sexual favors in exchange for a promotion or pay raise are among the most extreme forms of sexual harassment at work. In this case, “it is considered sexual harassment because the conduct is altering the terms and conditions of the person’s employment on the basis of their sex,” according to Alemzadeh. Because this behavior is so violent, Howell advises directly sharing your experience with the human resources department. From there, the company can conduct an investigation and formally address any inappropriate behavior.

Talking about a TV show or movie in a graphic way

When casual office banter becomes vulgar, it’s time to walk away from the conversation. Repeatedly bringing up topics like explicit TV shows or movies, or making graphic remarks that make people uncomfortable, is considered sexual harassment by the EEOC guidelines. Before speaking to your company’s HR department about the harasser, McGowan suggests keeping a record of their behavior, as well as the dates and times when it occurred, to back up your case. “With evidence, you are far more likely to be taken seriously,” she says.

Insults based on an employee’s gender

Off-color jokes like “She won’t understand that because she’s a woman” could be innocent, but they might go too far if repeated. “A single comment or isolated incident can still have a very negative impact on an employee’s feeling of self-worth, safety, and dignity in the workplace,” according to Alemzadeh. What’s more, some of the most extreme forms of workplace sexual harassment (like sexual assault) often arise after a pattern of seemingly “minor” incidents, she says. No one should ever say these 11 things at work.

Sending flirtatious texts and notes

Including a smiley face in an email is one thing, but sending several flirtatious texts or notes to a colleague is a big no-no. Not sure when this behavior crosses the line into sexual harassment? According to Bravo, the “key here is repeating the behavior or making it a pattern, especially after someone has shown they are uncomfortable or asked the person to stop.” That includes receiving unwanted gifts or other favors, too. When you reach out to human resources about the issue, use those messages and gifts as physical proof of your experience.

Cornering an employee in the office

Beware of a colleague who creates opportunities to be alone with you—it could be an early sign of harassment. Experts warn that this could escalate to more severe forms of sexual harassment at work, such as cornering someone in the office and even stalking or spying on them. If an employee’s behavior makes you feel uncomfortable, it’s best to address the issue through appropriate channels as soon as possible. “Most people are not harassers,” Bravo says. “But often such behavior flourishes because no one steps up to stop it.”

Frequently discussing graphic topics like sex

A colleague who often brings up sex, porn, or other uncomfortable topics at work should be reported right away. But unfortunately, a 2016 analysis estimated that out of all the respondents who reported sexual harassment, only six percent felt that their complaint was dealt with adequately. If you believe your concerns won’t be taken seriously, Bravo recommends asking colleagues if they have experienced similar behavior from the harasser. The larger the group of accusers, the harder it will be for your employer to ignore the problem.

Ogling or staring at a colleague’s body

Business persons going up the stairs.metamorworks/Shutterstock

Feeling someone’s eyes staring at and scrutinizing your body can make the workplace feel much more hostile. And these instances are not uncommon; the EEOC received 28,000 workplace harassment complaints in 2015, and 45 percent of them were sex-based. Plus, research shows that when companies fail to address sexual harassment at work, employee performance can lag. “Policies and procedures are not in themselves enough,” Howell says. “The business must be committed to putting them into practice.” Next, read up on the 50 secrets your boss won’t tell you—but you need to know.

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Brooke Nelson
Brooke is a tech and consumer products writer covering the latest in digital trends, product reviews, security and privacy, and other news and features for