Understanding Nonverbal Harassment In the Workplace

The way that people communicate in the workplace includes a combination of verbal behaviors, nonverbal behaviors, and physical behaviors such as hugging.

All of these different ways of communicating can lead to sexual harassment in the workplace if people are not considerate of what they are saying and how they are expressing it. This post focuses on nonverbal behavior that can cross the line and become sexual harassment.


What is nonverbal sexual harassment?

When people think about sexual harassment, behaviors that are typically top-of-mind include unwanted touching or making inappropriate sexual comments, references, or jokes. However, sexual harassment can also include a variety of nonverbal behaviors such as gestures, pictures or videos, tone, and facial expressions.

Some potential examples of nonverbal sexual harassment are:


Sexual gestures with hands or body movements
Looking at a person up and down (“elevator eyes”)
Staring at specific parts of people’s bodies, such as someone’s breasts or buttocks
Paying unwanted sexual attention to someone, like by always visually tracking that person’s movements within the office
Displaying sexually suggestive visuals, such as on posters or pictures within an office, set as a virtual meeting background, or on clothing
Sending sexually suggestive emojis through text messages, email, social media, or instant messages
Suggestively making facial expressions, including winking, licking lips, and blowing kisses
Sending sexual images or videos through text messages, email, social media, or instant messages, including cartoons and media that are or could be sexual innuendos

In order for any of the above behaviors to create a hostile work environment, they would need to be unwanted and happen often or have a significant impact on the recipient(s) of the behaviors.

What is the impact of nonverbal sexual harassment in the workplace?

As with any form of harassment, nonverbal sexual harassment has the potential to negatively impact individuals and the entire organization. These effects can vary by the type, severity and duration of the harassment.

Victims of nonverbal sexual harassment can experience: Psychological/Emotional Impact (anxiety, depression, fear, low self-esteem); Physical Impact (muscle aches, headaches, high blood pressure, digestive problems); Financial Impact if employee leaves due to harassment (loss of income, negative impact on earning potential and career trajectory); Potential negative impact on reputation.

Organizations that do not stop or prevent nonverbal sexual harassment can experience: Low employee morale/productivity; High employee turnover; Financial impact; Loss of reputation.

How can I prevent nonverbal behaviors from becoming sexual harassment?

1. Avoid behaviors like suggestive facial expressions, sexual gestures, “elevator eyes,” and staring at specific parts of people’s bodies. These behaviors, even if meant as a joke, are sexual in nature and are likely to make people uncomfortable, especially when they happen in the workplace.
2. Be mindful of how visuals could be perceived by others. For instance, people would expect anatomical images to be displayed in an OBGYN’s examination room. They would be less likely to expect those same images to be displayed within a financial agent’s cubicle or set as an IT person’s virtual meeting background. If there is not a reasonable context for a sexually suggestive visual to be in the workplace, it shouldn’t be there.
3. Get in the habit of asking about people’s boundaries related to the use of emojis in written communications before you use those emojis. People often assume that others are okay with the same things they are, but it isn’t always the case...especially in the workplace. Even an emoji like the winky face is viewed as sexual by some individuals.
4. Think about your audience and the extent of the content before sharing images or videos that may have a sexual element. Ask in advance if those individuals would be okay with receiving that kind of media from you. Never send those images or videos to someone that you supervise, a client/customer, or anyone who has told you they don’t want to see them. Avoid sending those images or videos via work email accounts and during work hours.

What should I do if I experience or witness nonverbal sexual harassment?

It can be easy to assume that nonverbal sexual harassment isn’t “as bad” as other forms of sexual harassment. But nonverbal sexual harassment can be just as impactful and intrusive as verbal and physical sexual harassment, and should be addressed when it happens.

1. If you are the target of nonverbal sexual harassment and you feel comfortable doing so, you can talk to the person about their behavior(s). Let them know about your boundaries and how what they did crossed them. You could do this by saying, “I’m not a fan of using emojis like the winky face when I’m instant messaging with coworkers. It’s hard to know someone’s intentions and makes me uncomfortable. In the future, I would like you to not include any emojis when you message me.”

If you witness nonverbal sexual harassment, you can be an upstander and intervene in the situation. Being an upstander could look like:

  • Naming the behavior: “That’s not okay and what you just did could be considered sexual harassment.”
  • Delegating by asking someone else to help: “You have a better working relationship with Sam. Could you talk to them about that sexual joke they recently messaged everyone?”  
  • Creating a distraction: Interrupt, drop or spill something to divert someone’s inappropriate attention elsewhere.
3. Nonverbal sexual harassment behaviors can also be reported to supervisors, leadership team members, and/or HR departments. Documentation of these incidents can lead to accountability for people who engage in these behaviors, and demonstrates that they are taken seriously in the workplace.

Everyone should want a workplace where all types of communication are respectful. Following these guidelines is one way that we can contribute to a positive workplace culture and prevent nonverbal sexual harassment.


What can my organization do to prevent nonverbal sexual harassment?

Many states have sexual harassment prevention laws in place that stipulate the policies, training requirements and complaint handling protocols with which organizations doing business in that state (or that have employees working in that state) must comply.  In general, best practices for organizations committed to stopping sexual harassment in the workplace include:

  • Strong policies against all forms of sexual harassment and retaliation, communicated at all levels of the organization
  • Clear messaging on where and how victims (and witnesses) can safely report sexual harassment 
  • Effective sexual harassment prevention training that:
    • educates people on all forms of sexual harassment and sexual misconduct
    • provides instruction on what to do if you experience sexual harassment
    • teaches how to be an upstander, not a bystander if you witness sexual harassment (aka "bystander intervention")
    • offers special training for managers on how to handle a sexual harassment complaint and build a culture of respect. 


Recommended Sexual Harassment Training for Employees and Managers

Once & For All: Stopping Sexual Harassment at Work

End inappropriate behaviors and empower employees to stand up for themselves and others with Once & For All. Our uniquely designed eLearning maximizes learner engagement, meets sexual harassment training requirements in all 50 states, and lets you track behavior change with analytics.