Sexual Harassment in the Workplace

4 minute read

Sexual harassment is considered a very serious issue in the United States and is strictly forbidden. Many individuals new to the professional work environment may not know how to handle instances of sexual harassment or when to speak up, especially when they are concerned it will put their jobs at risk.

The official definition of sexual harassment is, "Unwelcome verbal, visual, or physical conduct of a sexual nature that is severe or pervasive and affects working conditions or creates a hostile work environment."

Sexual harassment is only considered harassment if it is unwelcome. It is important to note, though, that what is considered unwelcome by you may not be considered unwelcome to someone else. Therefore, if the behavior of an office colleague is unwanted and makes you feel uncomfortable, it is important to communicate this to the individual or to your supervisor/HR representative. Similarly, if an individual expresses that your behavior towards him or her is unwelcome, it is essential that you take steps to change your behavior.

Sexual harassment can take place in verbal, visual or physical form. Any type of behavior of a sexual nature can be considered sexual harassment if it is also unwelcome and pervasive. Some examples:

Verbal or written: Comments about clothing, physical appearance, or a person's body; sex-based jokes; requesting sexual favors or repeatedly asking a person out; sexual innuendoes; telling rumors about a person's personal or sexual life; threatening a person, making sexual advances or using sexually suggestive language; threats to terminate employment or other types of personal threats for not consenting to sexual advances.

Physical: Assault; blocking movement; inappropriate touching of a person or a person's clothing; kissing, hugging, patting, stroking; invasion of space.

Nonverbal: Looking up and down a person's body; derogatory gestures or facial expressions of a sexual nature; following a person.

Visual: Images, posters, drawings, pictures, screensavers or emails of a sexual nature present in the workplace.

Sexual harassment can affect working conditions and create a hostile work environment if it has an adverse impact on your working ability and negatively affects your work performance. Further, if you are denied a promotion, raise, or any other improvement in your work life because you are not receptive to sexual advances, this is most certainly considered sexual harassment.

What you can do about it

Know the law: Sexual Harassment in the workplace is illegal, and United States law forbids sexual harassment, as well as retaliation for any action taken against sexual harassment. This means that it is illegal to punish or take revenge on someone for reporting sexual harassment. An example of this sort of retaliation is if you get fired or demoted for accusing someone in your workplace of sexual harassment. This law protects you from your coworkers and supervisors in your company in case any conflicts arise. Sexual harassment laws protect both men and women, as sexual harassment can affect both genders.

Communicate: If you experience sexual harassment, it is important to communicate this to individuals who can help resolve the issue. The first step is to inform the person behaving inappropriately that this type of behavior is unwelcome. You should make it clear that his/her behavior makes you feel uncomfortable and you do not appreciate it. If they do not stop once this has been made clear, then you should speak to your supervisor and/or Human Resources representative to see how they can help resolve this issue with you. This may be a difficult task, as you may feel embarrassed or afraid of the repercussions; however, under no circumstances should you ever feel uncomfortable in your work environment, nor do you have a right to make your coworkers uncomfortable either. Just know that anti-sexual harassment laws protect employees in these scenarios, and you should never be in a position where you feel uncomfortable in the workplace.

Harassment From a Supervisor

In some instances, one's supervisor may be the one making unwanted sexual advances. If you experience this, please know that you do not need to continue working for this employer. Your employer does not have the authority to cancel your visa. You have the option to find another host employer if you can no longer continue working at your original host employer. You should not subject yourself to feeling uncomfortable at work. It may be helpful to speak with your supervisor's manager or a Human Resources representative regarding your supervisor's unwanted behavior. Please contact InterExchange if there is no one else at the company with higher authority or if you feel you need to change host employers. We can help guide you through this process and are here to provide support.

If you do encounter any form of sexual harassment, please inform InterExchange after you have spoken with your supervisor or Human Resources manager, and let us know how the situation is being handled. It is important to inform InterExchange, as we are responsible for monitoring our participants and their well-being. We can provide additional advice and support and help you to find a successful resolution.

Ani Kington By

Originally from Columbus, Ohio, Ani is a fan of exploring new places through photography and the local cuisine. After earning her BFA in photography from NYU and gaining communications experience at International Planned Parenthood Federation, she joined InterExchange in 2012, and worked as the Marketing Producer until 2016.

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