Understanding What Workplace Behavior is Not Sexual Harassment


People interact both socially and professionally at work. Within those interactions, people have different boundaries and levels of comfort. Sometimes, these differences can lead to situations that cross the line between not being sexual harassment and being sexual harassment. So it’s good to have an understanding of where that line might be and how to avoid it.

According to the EEOC, sexual harassment includes “unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical harassment of a sexual nature.” The three factors that establish illegal harassment are...

The behavior:

  • has a sexual element,
  • is unwelcome, and
  • is frequent or severe.

Sexual harassment can involve anyone in the workplace, including co-workers, supervisors and supervisees, and clients/customers. It can also occur in-person and online, including via email, text messages, instant messages, and virtual meetings.

What is not considered sexual harassment?

A variety of behaviors and situations are not sexual harassment, but they could become so if they are unwelcome, have a sexual element, and are frequent or severe.

Some examples include:

A supervisor treating an employee to a meal to celebrate a milestone or achievement.

Being alone with an employee or co-worker, such as in an office with a closed door for a meeting or in a car while traveling to a conference.

Giving a gift to an employee or co-worker.

Sending memes or telling jokes via email, text message, or instant message.

Asking a co-worker a question like, “Are you married?” or “How’s your love life?"

Asking a supervisor about a co-worker’s relationship status or sexual orientation.

Sharing personal details about a client/customer when talking about them to colleagues.

Physical contact, like hugs or patting someone’s shoulder or back.

The common element for all of these examples is that they have the potential to cross someone’s boundaries and create discomfort, even if that wasn’t the intent.  See the tips below for advice on understanding and respecting personal and professional boundaries.

What does it look like when a behavior or situation becomes sexual harassment?

Although everyone has different boundaries and levels of comfort, the line between behaviors and situations that are and aren’t sexual harassment should be clear. Here are a few examples:

1. Sending emojis in communications

Not Sexual Harassment

An employee often includes emojis in the instant messages and emails they send to other team members. Usually, the emojis are the smiley, frowny, and crying faces. The employee let everyone know that they tend to use emojis when they’re wanting to make their feelings clear, but aren’t sure the tone of what they’ve written will come off correctly

Sexual Harassment

An employee regularly includes emojis in the instant messages and emails they send, but only to female team members. The emojis go beyond the “standard” smiley and frowny faces and are often combined with comments, jokes, or questions that have a sexual tone. The employee has been asked to stop multiple times, but they just laugh and say that the emojis “liven up the mood.” These behaviors are creating a hostile environment for the female team members on the basis of their sex.

2. Discussing someone's gender identity.

Not Sexual Harassment

The non-binary employee is asked a question about their correct pronouns by a co-worker when they are first hired. The co-worker then shares those pronouns when they introduce the employee to other people on the team during a lunch break.

Sexual Harassment

A co-worker constantly makes derogatory comments about a non-binary employee in the presence of other team members, including in direct messages during virtual staff meetings. The co-worker refuses to use the employee’s correct pronouns and asks other team members to tell them about the bathroom that the employee uses. These behaviors are creating a hostile work environment for the non-binary employee on the basis of their sex.


3. Promising opportunities for promotion.

Not Sexual Harassment

A supervisor lets their employee know that they’ve been doing a great job and thinks they’re almost ready for a promotion. The supervisor says that if the employee shows they’re capable of handling the big project they’ve been recently assigned, then the supervisor will talk to leadership about giving them the promotion.

Sexual Harassment

A supervisor is discussing opportunities for promotion with one of their employees. They let the employee know that they’ve been doing a great job and they’re ready for the next level. However, the supervisor says that it might take some convincing from leadership to give them the promotion. So, the supervisor says they’ll only ask for the employee to get promoted if the employee goes out with them. Making a promotion contingent upon a sexual favor is quid pro quo sexual harassment.


How can I prevent a behavior or situation from becoming sexual harassment?


When being trained on sexual harassment prevention, make sure you fully understand the behaviors associated with the different types of sexual harassment (quid pro quo and hostile work environment) and steer clear of them.  Take added caution if you're a manager to avoid sexual harassment claims and situations that could be construed as inappropriate or discriminatory.  
Get in the habit of asking about people’s boundaries. It’s easy to assume that others are okay with the same things in the workplace that we are when that isn’t always the case. For instance, you could ask an employee whose accomplishment you want to celebrate, “How can we acknowledge your success?”    
Give people options for how to navigate “on the line” situations. If you need to have a closed-door meeting with someone, you could say, “There’s something that I want to talk to you about in private. Would you be okay with having the meeting in my office with the door closed? Or, would you prefer that we go somewhere else that would still be private but wouldn’t be as enclosed?”  
Follow your company’s gift-giving protocols. Generally, it is best to only give gifts for specific purposes, like acknowledging an accomplishment, and that are limited in scope. A gift card for a “job well done” is more appropriate than flowers or an all-inclusive vacation. Remember to first ask the person if they would be comfortable receiving a gift in such circumstances.  
Ask questions to learn about people’s preferences for socializing and discussing personal life topics at work. This will make you less likely to send an offensive meme or joke, ask uncomfortable questions, or seek or disclose information that others don’t want to share. You could do this by asking, “I want to get to know you as a person, but I also want to respect your boundaries. What are the kinds of topics that you are and aren’t okay discussing at work?”  


If you are ever in doubt about whether a situation or behavior could be sexual harassment, ask someone who has different boundaries than you do for their perspective. And if there is even the slightest possibility that someone else could be uncomfortable, do something different.

We should all want to be employees in workplaces where people are comfortable. Following these guidelines is one way that we can contribute to a positive workplace culture and prevent sexual harassment.

Our free How to Stop Sexual Harassment Once & For All eBook

contains tips and takeaways on various things employees, managers and organizations
can do to prevent sexual harassment at work.  Download this helpful 
resource today.


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