There exists a multitude of possible definitions of sexual harassment, particularly as it relates to and creates a hostile or offensive work environment. One of the reasons why defining sexual harassment in the organizational context is challenging is because sexual harassment can be present in several actions, comments, and even in the way one person may look at another.

This topic is even further complicated by other gender stereotypes and roles that interfere with perceived flexibility, especially for women.

Due to this complexity, the first reference to address is the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which effectively sought to eliminate negative or harassing behaviors, particularly as they related to race, gender, or ethnicity. Over time, as the legal implications of this broad definition of civil rights violations were found to be inadequate in certain alleged cases of sexual harassment (not simple sex discrimination} legal conditions had to further delineate more specifics about what does or does not constitute sexual harassment and even still, some cases are quite contentious and not universally accepted as legitimate due to the questionable nature of what truly defines this sort of harassment.

Several legal and ethics scholars have attempted to offer a broad but brief definition of sexual harassment that applies across sectors. One in particular, in addressing this issue of definition in the context of the workplace, Boland (2005) defines sexual harassment as being comprised of “unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature" (p.204) and outlines that this is the case when the conduct in question is related to the security or integrity of one’s employment and/or if the harassing behavior has a negative influence on one’s ability to work. In short, sexual harassment is a wide-ranging problem and is best defined in its context as a sexual remark, gesture, advance, or even threat that directly influences one’s position (i.e. that they could face termination if they report it or do not submit to the advance) or makes them feel ill at east at the workplace.

The key word for sexual harassment in the workplace includes, most importantly the term “unwanted" in terms of the advancement, comment, gesture, or glance. This is especially severe if the unwanted action puts one’s employment in jeopardy if one does not submit to the advances. Furthermore, such harassment creates a hostile and offensive working environment for the victim and, if left unreported, can escalate into a situation that can result in a lawsuit eventually or one’s resignation, neither of which are desirable outcomes for either an organization or individual.

Sexual harassment takes many forms and while there is no form of sexual harassment at the workplace or elsewhere that is acceptable, instances of sexual harassment range from the minor infraction to overtly criminal acts that include sexual intimidation or inappropriate advances in the form of touching. The more common forms of sexual harassment in the workplace including making insensitive jokes of a sexual or, in some cases, highly gendered nature, sending harassing emails or having conversations at work of a sexual nature, commenting on a coworker or subordinate’s appearances and making advances through this form of unwanted flattery, and more importantly, any kind of touching that is not professional, desired, and that is sexual in nature. Actions such as these can include rubbing shoulders, smoothing hair, kissing or hugging when not appropriate (which is generally never appropriate in the workplace) and actions of a related nature. One of the most complex issues in addressing sexual harassment in a legal or punitive way in the workplace then is defining it, especially since it can include so many actions or verbal infractions that range in severity and intent.

Unlike in many other fields of inquiry, the statistics on workplace sexual harassment support certain truisms about sexual harassment in the workplace are more or less congruent with one another and support some overwhelming conclusions about who is often the victim and how companies and organizations are handling the situation. According to a report conducted by IOMA Human Resources Management (2002) which derived its data and sexual harassment statistics from the responses of 232 companies, recognition of sexual harassment issues is prevalent, although outside of this some interesting statistics on sexual harassment issues emerged. As of this report, which is based on data from 2002, 97% of the companies who responded claimed to have formal policies in place against sexual harassment and out of that number, the vast majority (over 70%) claimed to have updated and redistributed the updates within the past six to twenty-four months. According to these statistics, 88% of the companies who had formal processes in place claimed that there was a coherent written procedure for making claims of sexual harassment and that there were measures in place to aid in the investigation. While these are useful statistics, they are not necessarily surprising.

What is rather staggering about these statistics about sexual harassment at work, however, are a few of the supplemental results of this study that revealed that of the total number of complaints filed in all responding companies, 91% of them were made by women. Also of interest, in terms of the total number of complaints filed, 65% of them were made due to improper sexual conduct, 53% were based on verbal harassment, and the rest ranged from obscene materials, physical assault, and harassing emails. What emerges in these statistics should send up warnings to employers that men are the most common perpetrators of sexual harassment according to these figures since women are by far the most affected and that since the vast number of complaints were due to impropriety and verbal offenses, these should be the avenues most addressed in future training sessions and policy recommendations.

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Boland, Mary L. (2005). Sexual Harassment in the Workplace. New York, New York: SphinxLegal.

IMOA. (2002). Sexual Harassment Survey: Vital Statistics. IOMA Human Resources Department Management Report, 2(1), 11-11.