Sexual Harassment in the Workplace

by Bill Grieve

Sun, 16 October 2022

Sexual Harassment in the Workplace

Many women, and sometimes men, are subjected to sexual harassment of various forms in their workplace and the many challenges that come with it. Bill Grieve looks at what sexual harassment is, what women can do and suggests a few resources to help those that are caught up in situations that are intolerable.

There are several challenges that employees face when entering the workplace. Sadly, dealing with harassment in various forms including discriminatory, retaliatory and racial harassment can be one of them. It’s undeniable that dealing with harassment can be distressing as it can be emotionally and mentally draining for the victim. 

It’s essential that people understand the various types of sexual harassment, and know how to best handle the situation to protect themselves and hold the culprit accountable.

What is sexual harassment?
According to Merriam Webster dictionary, sexual harassment is “Uninvited and unwelcome verbal or physical behaviour of a sexual nature especially by a person in authority toward a subordinate (such as an employee or student).”

A 2016 U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) study found that 75 percent of people who experience workplace harassment failed to act or bring it up with a supervisor, manager, or union representative. A major reason is that employees fear retaliation and bullying, while a possible reason for underreporting is that employees subjected to inappropriate behaviour are not clear on when it crosses the line into illegal sexual harassment.

Today, sexual harassment often takes on shadowy subtle forms. Instead of being propositioned or groped, a victim might receive suggestive texts or images, unsolicited sexual comments, innuendos, or invitations to meetings that somehow turn into dates. Sexual harassment is just as likely to happen through emails, social media, or other venues outside of the office as physically.

The Two Types of Workplace Sexual Harassment

Quid Pro Quo Harassment
Occurs when a colleague or superior requests sexual favours or other sexual activities in return of a work-related action. For instance, “You will get promotion if you sleep with me.” or “You will be fired or disciplined unless you make me happy.”

Hostile Work Environment
Takes place when an employee is subjected to unwelcome physical, written (texts/emails) or verbal conduct of a sexual nature that is so severe or pervasive as to change the employee’s working conditions or create an abusive hostile work environment.                                              

While Quid Pro Quo Harassment is relatively straightforward, a Hostile Work Environment can be more difficult to detect. What types of behaviour qualify as sexual harassment and how much is enough to qualify as harassment? We provide some guidance below.

Types of Sexual Harassment Conduct

Overt Sexual Harassment - This includes unwanted kissing, touching of private areas, rape in the extreme, other forms of sexual assault, requests for sexual favours, making sexually explicit comments, uninvited massages, sexually suggestive gestures, catcalls, ogling, or cornering someone in a tight space and rubbing against them.

Subtle Forms of Sexual Harassment - Any of the following actions can be sexual harassment if they make an employee feel uncomfortable, intimidated, or distracted enough to interfere with their work:

  • Repeated compliments on one’s appearance
  • Commenting on the attractiveness of others in front of an employee
  • Discussing one’s sex life in front of an employee
  • Asking an employee about his or her sex life
  • Circulating nude photos or photos of women in bikinis or shirtless men in the workplace
  • Making sexual innuendos or jokes
  • Sending sexually suggestive text messages or emails
  • Leaving unwanted gifts of a sexual or romantic nature
  • Discussing or spreading sexual rumours about an employee, or
  • Repeated hugs/other unwanted touching (such as a hand on an employee›s back, feeling hair, touching hands).

To qualify as a hostile work environment, the conduct must not only be offensive to the employee, but also to a reasonable person in the same circumstances.

An example of how a pattern of behaviour could lead to a hostile work environment claim: -

Maryam is a flight attendant on a commercial airline. One of the pilot Captains, Ahmed, frequently calls on Maryam to join him in the cockpit or to speak to her at crew hotels during layovers down route. These conversations quickly turn personal when the Captain talks to Maryam about her dating history and sexual preferences. During flights, Maryam catches Ahmed staring at her for long periods of time as she works. The Captain sends Maryam late-night texts saying that he likes watching her at work, and that he can't stop thinking about her. The Captain also makes a habit of walking through Maryam’s designated area on the aircraft and tries to see her alone during night stops to complain about his nonexistent sex life with his wife. Maryam makes it clear that his conduct is not appropriate and tries to avoid him, but he persists, saying that he just needs someone to be nice to him. The Captain’s unwanted attention and sexual harassment escalate gradually over the next few months and turn nasty when she doesn’t give in to “make him happy”.

Renowned Bahraini lawyer Saad Al Doseri of Al Doseri Law shares his thoughts on the topic

“The law covers the legal aspect of such an offence at the workplace. However, the law did not define what sexual harassment is. Though, it does state that sexual harassment can be through a gesture, verbal (eg. conversation, written communications), physical conduct, or any other means. Since the ways in which sexual harassment is committed cannot be limited, the law has kept the means of committing such an offence open-ended by stating any other means. The common understanding of sexual harassment changes from time to time and is subject to the culture of a country, its people and environment. Therefore, the law avoids defining sexual harassment, allowing the courts to apply the current common understanding.

From my experience, I have witnessed many incidents and guided some clients on how to deal with such behaviour. For instance, I recall a female employee who resigned from her new job due to male co-workers who made her work experience extremely difficult, although there was no physical contact. The harassment included side talks about her personal life, trying to speak with her after working hours, prolonged staring and insisting on one-to-one meetings, whether necessary or not. 

Tolerating such behaviour for any reason, even to maintain the job, will likely encourage the offender and others to continue and be more aggressive. 

It could be challenging to deal with such an issue in small and mid-size organisations. There is no room to transfer from one department to another since there are all on the same premises. In larger organisations, usually, there would be policies in place and proper internal systems to protect the employees. Therefore, practical guidance and steps would depend on the workplace, individuals involved and the circumstances.”

Do you believe that you have been subjected to sexual harassment in the workplace? Here’s what you should do:

  1. Take action at once! At the earliest opportunity verbally, yet firmly, tell the perpetrator to stop. 
  2. If the instances of harassment do not stop, avoid situations of sole contact and stay with other people always.
  3. Do not respond to informal communications like texts and block the perpetrator.
  4. Report any inappropriate behaviour as soon as it surfaces repeatedly.
  5. Start a detailed journal/diary of each incident detailing the date, time, witnesses, what happened, location and as many other details as possible.
  6. Use your wearable technology or phone – remember you will have to prove that the harassment has taken place so gather as much evidence as possible.
  7. Write down witnesses and their details.
  8. Talk to colleagues discreetly and see if any other staff have been harassed and make careful notes of conversations for evidential purposes. 
  9. Consider approaching a local lawyer who can grasp the circumstances quickly and act on your behalf discreetly but assertively – not necessarily formally.