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Ending Sexual Assault and Harassment in the Workplace

Sexual assault, harassment, and abuse are widespread societal problems that impact Americans across race, gender identity, sexual orientation, income, disability status, and many other factors. Recent research has demonstrated the scope and impact of workplace sexual harassment. This online resource collection includes information about defining workplace sexual harassment, understanding the scope of the size of the problem, and the path to prevention.

What is sexual harassment?

Under Federal law it is unlawful to harass a person (applicant or employee) because of that person’s sex (U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, n.d.). Sexual harassment is defined by its impact, not its intent. The conduct must be unwelcome to be considered sexual harassment. It can include behavior such as:

  • unwelcome sexual advances
  • requests for sexual favors,
  • verbal or physical harassment of a sexual nature
  • inappropriate statements
  • lewd gestures
  • leering behavior
  • sexually explicit jokes, emails, or texts
  • offensive objects or images.

Anyone of any age, sex, sexual orientation, or gender identity can be a victim or a harasser. The victim and the harasser can also be of the same sex, sexual orientation, and/or gender identity.

  • Workplace sexual harassment is common but is rarely reported.
    • Thirty eight percent of all women and fourteen percent of men have reported experiencing sexual harassment at work (Kearl, Johns, & Raj, 2019).
    • 1 in 7 women and 1 in 17 men have sought a new job assignment, changed jobs, or quit a job because of sexual harassment and assault (Kearl et al., 2019).
    • Sixty percent of women say they have experienced unwanted sexual attention, sexual coercion, sexually crude conduct, or sexist comments in the workplace (Feldblum & Lipnic, 2016).
    • In some industries, more than 9 in 10 women say they have been sexually harassed (Puente & Kelly, 2018).
    • Over 85 percent of people who experience sexual harassment never file a formal legal charge, and approximately 70 percent of employees never even complain internally (Feldblum & Lipnic, 2016).
  • The impact of sexual harassment in the workplace is real and damaging (Feldblum & Lipnic, 2016).
    • Employees that experience sexual harassment are more likely to report:
      • Psychological symptoms of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, stress, and anxiety.
      • Physical problems such as headaches, sleep problems, gastric problems, weight loss/gain, etc.
    • Impact on other employees/witnesses - The damaging effects of harassment do not just impact the employee who is the victim of sexual harassment. Those who observe it can also suffer mental and physical harm and employee morale can decrease.
    • Costs for businesses – Businesses can face financial costs associated with harassment complaints in addition to decreased employee productivity, increased employee turnover rate, and reputational harm.

Workplace sexual harassment general information

The resources below provide general information and research about sexual harassment in the workplace.

Sexual Harassment and Assault at Work: Understanding the Costs(PDF, 12 pages) This briefing paper by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research (IWPR) reviews current literature on sexual harassment and assault and the impact on women’s economic advancement and economic security. Recommendations for preventing sexual harassment are also included.

Out of the Shadows: An Analysis of Sexual Harassment Charges filed by Working Women (PDF, 38 pages) The National Women’s Law Center analyzed sexual harassment charges filed with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) by women in the private sector between 2012 and 2016. In 2016, almost 7,000 sexual harassment charges were filed, 82% by women. This report shares the findings from their analysis and recommendations for future research, prevention by employers, and legislative change.

#MeTooWhatNext: Strengthening Workplace Sexual Harassment Protections and Accountability (PDF, 10 pages) This resource from the National Women’s Law Center focuses on policy changes to extend protections to more workers, strengthening employees ability to hold employers and individuals accountable for harassment, redressing the harm to victims, restricting employer imposed secrecy, and requiring sexual harassment prevention strategies.

What is Workplace Sexual Harassment? (PDF, 4 pages) This fact sheet by Equal Rights Advocates explains the legal definition of sexual harassment and includes tips and options for survivors.

Workplace sexual harassment online toolkits

The following are resources and tools for advocates and employers working to prevent and respond to sexual harassment.

Workplaces Respond to Domestic & Sexual Violence: A National Resource Center: (Webpage) Workplaces Respond provides resources, training, and technical assistance to employers, survivors, co-workers, and advocates to prevent and respond to sexual harassment, abuse, assault, and other forms of violence impacting the workplace. Highlighted resources by Workplaces Respond includes:

Sexual Harassment in the Workplace Toolkit (PDF, 41 pages) This toolkit by Equal Rights Advocates contains information about employees legal rights, tips on what to do if an employee experiences sexual harassment or is facing retaliation, and provides additional resources for legal information.

#NowWhat: The Sexual Harassment Solutions Toolkit (webpage) This toolkit by New America is the companion piece to their Sexual Harassment: A Severe and Pervasive Problem report that documents the pervasiveness of sexual harassment. The toolkit focuses on promising solutions for preventing sexual harassment.

National Sexual Violence Resource Center (NSVRC) Resources:

Sexual Violence & the Workplace Information Packet (webpage) This information packet by NSVRC provides resources on the impact of sexual harassment, abuse, and assault on a survivor’s employment, and how to prevent it from happening. Resources are available for advocates and employers. Highlighted resources include:

  • Guide for Employers (PDF, 16 pages) The purpose of this guide is to provide employers with information that may help them create a comprehensive violence prevention and response plan in collaboration with community based rape crisis centers.
  • Guide for Advocates (PDF, 16 pages) Using Sexual Violence and the Spectrum of Prevention (Davis, Parks, & Cohen, 2006), this guide provides advocates with information about the connections between sexual harassment, abuse, and assault, and employment and offers possible prevention strategies.

Ending Sexual Assault and Harassment in the Workplace (PDF, 3 pages) This tip sheet by NSVRC discusses the prevalence of workplace sexual harassment and provides tips for preventing it.

Helping Industries to Classify Reports of Sexual Harassment, Sexual Misconduct, and Sexual Assault (PDF, 53 pages) This report by the Urban Institute and NSVRC developed a system of categorization for reports of sexual harassment, sexual misconduct, and sexual assault received by Uber from users of the ride-sharing and other app-driven services. The report also discusses ways this method can improve similar efforts in other businesses and industries.

Impact of workplace sexual harassment in specific industries

The following are resources that highlight specific industries where survivors may have unique experiences of sexual assault, harassment, and abuse.

Technical Report: National Park Service (NPS) Work Environment Survey January –March 2017 (PDF, 222 pages) This report presents the findings from the National Park Service Work Environment Survey that analyzed the workplace harassment experiences of employees and the impact of that harassment.

#MeToo in Traditionally Male-Dominated Occupations: Preventing and Addressing Sexual Harassment (PDF, 7 pages) This briefing paper by Chicago Women in Trades and the National Center for Women’s Equality in Apprenticeship and Employment provides an overview of how sexual harassment differs for women in male-dominated workplaces and provides recommendations for public policy and changes employers can make.

Sexual Harassment of Women: Climate, Culture, and Consequences in Academic Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (website) The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine’s report on sexual harassment in academia examines the impacts of sexual harassment and identifies and analyzes policies, strategies, and practices that have been successful in preventing and responding to sexual harassment. Additional resources are available including an infographic on Preventing Sexual Harassment in Academia, infographiconThe Iceberg of Sexual Harassment, and Interventions for Preventing Sexual Harassment.

Workplace Violence and Harassment of Low-Wage Workers (PDF, 47 pages) This article discusses the challenges and barriers low-wage workers encounter when they face sexual harassment and abuse in the workplace and proposes strategies for legal advocates on how to help survivors.

Tipped Over the Edge: Gender Inequity in the Restaurant Industry (PDF, 40 pages) This report by the Restaurant Opportunities Centers United et al. documents the gender inequality in the restaurant work. It highlights discrimination and violence many workers experience while working. More than one in ten surveyed workers reported they or a co-worker had experienced sexual harassment while working in a restaurant.

The Glass Floor: Sexual Harassment in the Restaurant Industry (PDF, 40 pages) This report by the Restaurant Opportunities Centers United and Forward Together documents the sexual harassment experiences of restaurant workers and reports how sexual harassment is fueled by sub-minimum wage and tipped employment. Finally, the report provides policy recommendations to create safer and more equitable workplaces.

Reality Check: Seventeen Million Reasons Low-Wage Workers Need Strong Protections from Harassment (PDF, 28 pages) This document by the National Women’s Law Center reports on the realities of sexual harassment experiences of low wage workers and provides suggestions for protections against harassment.

The impact of workplace sexual harassment on Immigrant Workers

The following resources can help prevent and respond to the unique needs of immigrant workers who experience sexual assault, harassment and abuse in the workplace.

Cultivating Fear: The Vulnerability of Immigrant Farmworkers in the US to Sexual Violence and Sexual Harassment (PDF, 95 pages) This report discusses the sexual abuse, harassment, and assault experiences of immigrant farmworkers in the United States. The report suggests that these experiences are common among farmworking women, reporting is limited, and that an advocate’s presence may increase reporting of these crimes.

Rape on the Night Shift (webpage) by Frontline (PBS), Univision, The Center for Investigative Reporting (CIR), the Investigative Reporting Program (IRP) at UC Berkeley, and EQED. This investigative report follows up the story on Rape in the Fields and covers the sexual abuse of immigrant women who work on the night shift cleaning offices, malls and businesses. Watch the full length documentary. Materials are also available in Spanish.

Rape in the Fields (webpage) by Frontline, the Center for Investigative Reporting, Investigative Reporting Program, & Documentales Univision. This special report includes investigative reporting articles and a 53-minute film on the sexual assault, harassment, and abuse against farmworking women. Resources for agricultural workers are available. Some materials are available in Spanish.

Injustice On Our Plates: Immigrant Women in the U.S. Food Industry (PDF, 68 p.) This report by the Southern Poverty Law Center documents interviews of undocumented farmworkers. Female farmworkers are vulnerable to sexual assault, harassment, and abuse. This report discusses the economic challenges, workplace exploitation, sexual harassment, and abuse women experience while working in the fields.

Sexual Violence Against Farmworkers: A Guidebook for Social Service Providers (PDF 68 p.) This guide by California Rural Legal Assistance, Esperanza, Lideres Campesinas, and Victim Rights Law Center provides information to advocates on how farmworkers are impacted by sexual assault, harassment, and abuse and how to best serve their unique needs. A guidebook for legal providers and criminal justice professionals are also available.

The role and responsibility of employers

Workplace sexual harassment is one of the most widespread and pervasive problems in U.S. society. Employers have a role and a responsibility to keep their employees safe. Employers could be held liable for sexual harassment and assault that happens in the workplace. Sexual harassment, assault, and abuse do not have to occur at work or be perpetrated by a coworker to impact a survivor’s employment (National Sexual Violence Resource Center [NSVRC], 2013). Survivors may miss days of work, experience decreased productivity at work, or be forced to quit their job because of violence they have experienced.

Using research and best practices, we can create healthier workplace cultures where the work environment promotes the safety and well-being of all employees.Below are resources for employers and people working with employers to prevent sexual harassment in the workplace.

The following findings from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) Select Task Force on the Study of Harassment in the Workplace demonstrate the steps necessary for employers to move toward prevention. The report Key Findings of the Select Task Force on the Study of Harassment in the Workplace(PDF, 20 pages) by the National Sexual Violence Resource Center covers the key findings of the EEOC's study:

  • Workplace harassment is still a persistent problem and often goes unreported because victims fear negative reactions such as disbelief, blame, and retaliation.
  • It benefits workplaces to prevent and respond to sexual harassment since it is costly. In direct costs, for example, an estimated settlement in 2012 was over $356 million and the largest sexual harassment jury award was $168 million. It is also costly indirectly through employee absenteeism and turnover of both victims of the harassment and bystanders who witness the sexual harassment.
  • Change starts at the top. Employers should foster a culture where sexual harassment is not tolerated and respect is promoted. Examples of steps that can be taken include – assessing their workplace, conducting climate surveys, devoting resources to prevention efforts, and holding people accountable who commit sexual harassment.
  • Organizations should have a stated comprehensive policy against harassment that outlines what behaviors will not be accepted and the procedure for reporting and responding to harassment as confidentially as possible. A reporting system should include multiple ways to report harassment. Disciplinary action for harassment should be proportionate to the offense as “zero tolerate” one sized-fits all policies tend to backfire.
  • Training must change by moving beyond just compliance training to a holistic effort to prevent and respond to harassment. New and different approaches to training should be explored – including workplace respect and civility training and bystander intervention training.

Resources for Employers on preventing workplace sexual harassment

STOP SV: A Technical Package to Prevent Sexual Violence: (PDF, 48 p.) This technical package by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) provides strategies on the best available evidence to help communities and states prevent sexual violence and reduce its consequences. See the section “Create Protective Environments” for information on establishing and consistently applying workplace policies.

See the Signs & Speak Out: Become an Upstander: (online course) by Avon Foundation for Women. This online course is an employer-training program on how to prevent sexual and domestic violence in their workplace focusing on bystander intervention. There are also resources for advocates to provide training to employers.

Workplaces Respond to Domestic and Sexual Violence: A National Resource Center (webpage) by Futures Without Violence. This website provides many resources and interactive tools for employers. Employers can download a workplace toolkit, read a guide for supervisors, and download a model workplace policy.

Guidance for Agency-Specific Domestic Violence, Sexual Assault, and Stalking Policies (PDF, 38 pages) This document by the United States Office of Personnel Management provides federal agencies with direction on responding to violence in the workplace.

An Employer, Union & Service Provider’s Guide to Ending Street Harassment (PDF, 25 pages) This guide by Debjani Roy of Hollaback! explains how street harassment impacts the workplace and provides information for employers on what they can do to help. Listen to a podcast with the author.

Encourage, Support Act! Bystander Approaches to Sexual Harassment in the Workplace (PDF, 29 pages) This document by the Australian Human Rights Commission illustrates how the bystander approach can be utilized in a workplace setting to prevent workplace sexual assault, harassment, and abuse.

Sexual Violence & the Workplace: Employer’s Guide to Prevention (PDF, 16 pages) When sexual assault, harassment, or abuse occurs in the workplace, it can create a climate of fear and reduce productivity and wellness of the entire staff. The purpose of this guide by NSVRC is to provide employers with information that may help facilitate their engagement in creating a comprehensive violence prevention and response plan in collaboration with community-based rape crisis centers.

References

Davis, R., Parks, L. F., & Cohen, L. (2006). Sexual violence and the spectrum of prevention: Towards a community solution. Retrieved from the National Sexual Violence Resource Center: http://www.nsvrc.org/sites/default/files/Publications_NSVRC_Booklets_Sexual-Violence-and-the-Spectrum-of-Prevention_Towards-a-Community-Solution_0.pdf

Feldblum, C. R., & Lipnic, V. A. (2016). Select task force on the study of harassment in the workplace: Report of the co-chairs of the EEOC. Retrieved from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission: https://www.eeoc.gov/eeoc/task_force/harassment/upload/report.pdf

Kearl, H., Johns, N. E., & Raj, A. (2019). Measuring #metoo: A national study on sexual harassment and assault. Available from Stop Street Harassment: http://www.stopstreetharassment.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/08/2019-MeToo-National-Sexual-Harassment-and-Assault-Report.pdf

National Sexual Violence Resource Center. (2013). Sexual violence & the workplace: Overview. Retrieved from https://www.nsvrc.org/sites/default/files/2013-04/publications_nsvrc_overview_sexual-violence-workplace.pdf

Puente, M., & Kelly, C. (2018, February 23). The 94 percent: How common is sexual misconduct in Hollywood? USA Today. Retrieved from https://www.usatoday.com/story/life/people/2018/02/20/how-common-sexual-misconduct-hollywood/1083964001/

U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. (n.d.). Sexual harassment. Retrieved from https://www.eeoc.gov/laws/types/sexual_harassment.cfm

Topic Workplace