Sexual harassment at the workplace

What is sexual harassment at the workplace?

Sexual harassment can occur in any workplace, from a factory to an office to a shop to a school. Whether the offense is made by a manager, co-worker, or even a non-employee like a client, contractor, or vendor, if the behaviour creates a hostile work environment or interrupts an employee's success, it is considered unlawful sexual harassment.

Sexual harassment in the workplace is different from general sexual harassment in that it is directly related to the way one makes a living. It is often used as a form of power-play, and can occur in many stages of the job cycle, from recruitment to promotion.

It can include direct sexual advances or propositions, including higher-ranked employees asking for sexual favours from juniors. It can also include intimidating or excluding women employees to jeopardise their employment status. And it can mean creating a hostile workplace for women by using sexist jokes, remarks, or pinning up sexually explicit or pornographic photos.

Sexual harassment in the workplace can prevent victims from earning a living, doing their job effectively, or reaching their full potential. Sexual harassment can also poison the environment for everyone else. If left unchecked, sexual harassment in the workplace has the potential to escalate to violent behaviour.

Is sexual harassment a human rights issue?

Yes. Violence in the world of work, like gender-based violence, is a human rights issue. When sexual harassment occurs, it is seen as a violation of women’s (and men’s) human rights. To tackle it means exploring the root causes of discriminatory practices and understanding their many different regional, cultural and social contexts.

Who can be a victim of sexual harassment at the workplace?

All employees and employers, regardless of gender and job ranking. However, women tend to be more vulnerable to sexual harassment because they often hold lower-paying, lower-authority and lower-status jobs compared to men. At the same time, even women in positions of authority may experience sexual harassment.

It can also occur even if one is self-employed, by a client or supplier, for example.

Who can be a perpetrator of sexual harassment at the workplace?

All employees and employers, regardless of gender and job ranking. This includes bosses, co-workers, colleagues, clients, suppliers, contractors, HR staff and more.

While sexual harassment can occur in any workplace, it can be more common in certain work spaces such as:

  • Male-dominated work environments (for example, the military, policing, construction work)
  • Jobs that are thought to be “subservient” (for example, nursing, massage therapy, waitressing)
  • Work done in isolation (for example, live-in caregivers).
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