Is It Sexual Harassment or Not?

What you don't know can hurt you.
Is It Sexual Harassment or Not?
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In a recent poll by Reuters, 3,000 American adults were asked to look at eight different scenarios and define each as sexual harassment or not. On extreme examples, all agreed that it was.

On other examples there was disagreement. For example:

  • On “unwanted compliments about your appearance,” 38 percent said it was sexual harassment, and 47 percent said it wasn’t.
  • On “dirty jokes,” 41 percent said it was, and 44 percent said it wasn’t.
  • On “nonconsensual hugging,” 44 percent said it was, 40 percent said it wasn’t.

Related: Is 'That' Sexual Harassment? How to Tell, Using 'Cooper's 6 Levels.'

The problem is that people come to work with different ideas about what is and is not harassment. These are your employees. In the world we live in today -- especially with the Matt Lauer, Charlie Rose and Harvey Weinstein scandals --that's a scary thought. 

On this issue, you as an entrepreneur and business owner can put yourself in a position of tremendous liability. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), a government agency that oversees claims filed for sexual harassment, reported levying more than 40 million dollars in fines last year. That does not include money won in lawsuits. Translation -- sexual harassment claims could put you out of business. 

What can you do? As someone who teaches this to corporations as a trainer and speaker, here is my advice.


You must train everyone on sexual harassment avoidance and prevention. The survey by Reuters proves that employees do not have the same opinions about what is and what is not sexual harassment. Employees need to know the law and have it defined. Each employee should sign a one-page document acknowledging they have taken the training and staging they will abide by company guidelines. 

Related: Don't Wait for Controversy to Strike Your Workplace: Adopt These 2018 HR Management Trends Now.

Clear written policy.

All organizations, no matter the size, need to have a clear, written sexual harassment policy. Every employee must read it and sign off on it.


It should be made clear to all employees what the consequences are for violating the policies, and it should be enforced when there are violations. There can be no exceptions, and it should apply to all people. Some companies I have worked with have said it applied to everyone except for a few superstars because they were “too valuable to lose.” Can you say Matt Lauer? How many people looked away at inappropriate behavior and gave him a hall pass because he was too valuable? There can be no exceptions.


Your managers are the front line in this war. You need to make sure they go through basic sexual harassment training plus additional training for managers so they are aware of their responsibilities. They have to role model respectful behavior and know what the guidelines are for holding people accountable.

Related: So, a Manager Just Pawed You. Or a Principal at Your Firm Made Lewd Remarks. Now, What?


All employees need to know what they can do if they want to report a problem or file a complaint about sexual harassment. They also need to know there is a “no retaliation rule” in place. That means people should know they will not be punished for filing a complaint.

It's simple. Sexual harassment prevention is about creating a workplace where people can feel respected comfortable and safe. It is about a workplace where people want to come to work every day and feel good about working in your company. As Aretha Franklin once said, it all about R-E-S-P-E-C-T.  

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