Sexual Harassment in the Workplace: What You Need to Know

Learn how to recognize sexual harassment in the workplace, and whether your employer might be liable.

By , J.D. · University of Missouri School of Law

Sexual harassment is unwelcome conduct, based on the victim's gender, that creates an intimidating, hostile, or offensive work environment.

An employee can be sexually harassed by coworkers, a manager, or even a subordinate, depending on the circumstances. Sometimes, harassment is committed by people who aren't company employees, such as clients, customers, vendors, or independent contractors.

Under federal law, sexual harassment is a form of sex discrimination that violates Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The federal agency tasked with receiving and investigating harassment complaints under Title VII is the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).

If you've experienced sexual harassment in the workplace, it's worth considering whether to file a charge of discrimination with the EEOC.

What Is Workplace Sexual Harassment?

Sexual harassment includes unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature. There are two types of sexual harassment recognized by federal law: quid pro quo and hostile work environment.

Quid Pro Quo Sexual Harassment

Quid pro quo refers to situations where employment decisions such as hiring, firing, or promotions are contingent upon the employee providing sexual favors. Examples of quid pro quo sexual harassment are when a supervisor threatens to fire an employee who does not submit to sexual advances or where a supervisor promises to promote an employee in exchange for sexual favors.

Hostile Work Environment Sexual Harassment

Hostile work environment sexual harassment refers to situations where the employee's work environment is made intimidating, hostile, or offensive due to the unwelcome sexual conduct, and the conduct unreasonably interferes with the employee's work performance.

This could take the form of unwanted sexual advances by a fellow employee, but it need not involve sexual advances at all. Examples of hostile work environment sexual harassment include:

  • making offensive sexual comments or jokes
  • discussions about sex, or
  • the display of sexually oriented photos or cartoons.

The victim of sexual harassment can be either a man or a woman. The harasser may be either a man or a woman as well. The victim and the harasser do not have to be of the opposite sex. The victim does not have to be the person to whom the sexual conduct is directed but could be anyone affected by the offensive conduct.

What Is Third-Party Sexual Harassment?

Third-party sexual harassment happens when the harassment is committed not by another employee, but by an outsider.

Typical perpetrators of this type of harassment include clients, customers, vendors who come on site or otherwise interact with employees, independent contractors who work for the company, and employees or contractors of a different company (for example, a security guard who is responsible for an office building where the company does business).

Third-party sexual harassment must meet the regular definition for sexual harassment -- that is, it must be so severe or pervasive that it creates a hostile or abusive work environment.

For example, if a delivery driver asks the company receptionist to go on a date, that wouldn't be sexual harassment. If the same driver asked the receptionist out repeatedly, refused to take no for an answer, and commented on her appearance every time he made a delivery, that would likely cross the line.

Similarly, if a client touched an employee on the arm while having a business lunch, that wouldn't constitute harassment. But if the client repeatedly touched the employee inappropriately, despite her requests that he stop, that would be harassment.

Employer Liability for Third-Party Harassment

An employer will be legally responsible for sexual harassment of its employees by a third party if it knows or should have known about the problem and failed to take immediate and appropriate corrective action. For example, if an employee complains that a client is harassing her, the company should immediately investigate the situation.

If it finds that inappropriate conduct took place, the company must act. For example, the company could place another employee on that account and inform the client that his behavior must stop.

Of course, the company doesn't have the same control over third parties as it has over its own employees. If the client or other third party won't change his behavior, this might leave the company with no alternative but to end the relationship with the outsider.

Employers must be careful not to penalize the employee who has been harassed. For example, if a client is sexually harassing an employee, but that client represents the company's biggest account and a plum assignment, the employee may not want to be removed from the account.

Similarly, if an employee's job is to oversee all vendor relationships, and the company demoted her so she wouldn't have to work with a vendor who was sexually harassing her, that's a negative action for the employee. These types of actions -- that penalize the employee who complains -- are illegal retaliation. The employee can't be punished for coming forward to complain of harassment.

Employer's Duty to Maintain a Workplace Free From Sexual Harassment

Whether harassment is committed by employees or third parties, the employer's responsibility is the same: It must take reasonable steps to put a stop to the harassing behavior, or face legal liability.

Employers should establish a policy for the prevention, reporting, investigation, and punishment of sexual harassment in the workplace.

An employer can be held liable for sexual harassment committed by their employees whether or not the employee is in a supervisory position. The employer can also be held liable for sexual harassment committed by non-employees.

Therefore, it is in the employer's best interest to prevent sexual harassment in the workplace and, if sexual harassment occurs, to take remedial action as quickly as possible.

History of Sexual Harassment Law in the United States

The practice of sexual harassment is centuries old. An early -- and extreme -- example of sexual harassment in the U.S were the sexual assaults on African American Women slaves by their owners, without any legal recourse available to the victims.

Sex discrimination has only been illegal in the U.S since the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Even after this landmark law passed, the first sexual harassment cases were not brought until the 1970s -- and the Supreme Court didn't consider the issue until the 1980s.

The courts have since broadened their interpretation of what constitutes sexual harassment. Below is a brief timeline of the important dates in history that have shaped sexual harassment in the U.S as we know it today.


The Civil Rights Act of 1964 is passed which prohibits employment discrimination based on race, color, sex, religion, or national origin. (It's commonly referred to as "Title VII," because that's the part of the Act that covers employment.) Title VII covers both men and women, but its original intent was to protect women in the workplace. This remains its main emphasis today.


Title IX of the Education Amendments is issued. This prohibits sex discrimination in schools that receive federal funding.


The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) states that sexual harassment is a form of sex discrimination prohibited by Title VII.


In a landmark decision, the Supreme Court rules that sexual harassment can be sex discrimination prohibited by Title VII. The case of Meritor Savings Bank v. Vinson ruled that speech in itself can create a hostile environment which violates the law.


The Civil Rights Act of 1991 is passed. Congress modifies Title VII to add more protection against discrimination in the workplace. Among other things, the Civil Rights Act of 1991 allows harassment and discrimination plaintiffs the right to a jury trial in federal court. It also gives plaintiffs the right to collect compensatory and punitive damages for the first time, subject to a cap based on the size of the employer.


The Violence Against Women Act of 1994 is passed. This limits acceptability of evidence of the past sexual history of the plaintiff in sexual harassment cases. It permits such evidence against sexual harassers accused of assault.


Congress passes the Government Accountability Act. This makes Congress's own members subject to the same employment laws as the rest of the country.

Sexual harassment takes many forms, from subtle psychological pressure to outright sexual assault. If you are facing harassment at work, contact an experienced employment attorney.

When to Contact an Employment Attorney

If you've experienced sexual harassment at work, report it immediately to your company's human resources department. Then consider speaking with an employment attorney to discuss your legal options.

You can get a free case evaluation from a local attorney on our website. Or consult our Lawyer Directory to find an experienced employment attorney in your area.

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