How to Recognize Sexual Harassment

7 min

Many people want to combat sexual harassment.


But often, sexual harassment goes unaddressed because we can’t recognize it.

The first step to fighting sexual harassment is recognizing sexual harassment.

But that list isn’t comprehensive.


There can’t be a comprehensive list of types of sexual harassment. So how do you recognize sexual harassment?

The method courts use to determine if behavior is sexual harassment is called the “reasonable person” standard.

It works like this:

If a reasonable person in the same or similar circumstances would find what’s happening intimidating, hostile, or abusive, then it's probably harassment.

Keep in mind that this requires you to examine your biases.


A “reasonable person” doesn’t just mean someone with your background or experiences.

For example, a lot of men might not think that flirting with a female coworker is that bad.

But studies have shown that men often overestimate women’s interest in them. It’s a bias that men build over time.

Time for a quiz.


Say you’re at a group lunch and your colleague Amelia is showing everyone her wedding pictures. Another female colleague, Liz, says, “You look beautiful in that dress!” Is that sexual harassment?

Quiz 1 of 2

Is complimenting Liz’s wedding dress sexual harassment?

a
Yes. Liz is making comments about Amelia’s appearance, which is harassment.
b
Yes. Liz is making comments about Amelia’s appearance in front of a group of people, which contributes to a hostile work environment.
c
No. Making comments about someone’s appearance does not constitute harassment.
d
No. It makes sense for Liz to compliment Amelia on how she looks in her wedding dress when looking at her wedding pictures.

Answer D: No. It makes sense for Liz to compliment Amelia on how she looks in her wedding dress when looking at her wedding pictures.


It might be different if Amelia said, “You look sexy in that dress,” or if she said it out of nowhere. 


But it’s not unreasonable for someone to compliment a coworker on how they look in their wedding dress when they are showing you pictures from their wedding.

Time for another quiz.


Your manager comes up to Danielle, who sits next to you, leans down, and whispers, “I heard you have a hidden tattoo. I’d love to see it.” Is that sexual harassment?

Quiz 2 of 2

Would a reasonable person think this is sexual harassment?

a
Yes. Managers should never ask about peoples’ tattoos — it’s too private.
b
Yes. It sounds like your manager is making a pass at Danielle, or at least being kind of creepy.
c
No. Your manager might just be a tattoo enthusiast.
d
No. Asking about body art does not constitute sexual harassment.

Answer B: Yes. It sounds like your manager is making a pass at Danielle, or at least being kind of creepy.


It’s not unreasonable to think that your manager is crossing a line and making Danielle uncomfortable.

Of course, you can’t be sure. And sometimes you may be wrong.


That’s okay.

Intervening shows your commitment to building a culture where people speak up about sexual harassment.


And that’s a good thing.

Lesson complete

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