Sexual Harassment in the Workplace 101

Sexual harassment law, training guidelines, and more. Everything you need to know about sexual harassment in the workplace. Talk to our team about Ethena’s Sexual Harassment Prevention Training Course for teams.

What Is Sexual Harassment?

Most of us have a good understanding of what sexual harassment is in a general sense, but how is sexual harassment defined under the law? What should you expect from your sexual harassment training?

Here are the basics you need to know to have an informed conversation about harassment in the workplace.

Did you know? Ethena launched in 2020 with Sexual Harassment Prevention training. For more information about bringing compliance training for today’s teams to your organization, please request a demo with our team!

What Is Sexual Harassment—Legally Defined

It is unlawful to harass someone because of that person’s sex.

What this means to you:

The EEOC defines sexual harassment as including unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature. Additionally, It is important to note that sexual harassment can include offensive remarks about a person’s sex, even if not sexual in nature.

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act is the federal law that prohibits employment discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex and national origin.

What this means to you:

Any harassment on the basis of sex (and any other protected characteristic) is considered a violation of those discrimination laws. So, at least under federal law, sexual harassment is actually a form of sex discrimination.

Harassment becomes illegal in two instances: Hostile Work Environment and Quid Pro Quo Harassment

What this means to you:

Harassment becomes illegal in two instances according to the law: when it is so frequent or severe that it creates a hostile or offensive work environment (a.k.a “Hostile Work Environment”) or when it results in an adverse employment action, like being demoted, fired, etc. (a.k.a. “Quid Pro Quo”).

Learn more about state-specific sexual harassment compliance training requirements:
The individual state requirements and deadlines for a charge of discrimination can be very different. Be sure to check your state for filing instructions. If you live and work in different states you should contact either state to determine the best location to file.
California: SB 396, 1343, and AB 2053

The California Fair Employment and Housing Act (aka FEHA) “makes specified employment practices unlawful, including the harassment of an employee directly by the employer or indirectly by agents of the employer with the employer’s knowledge.”

Illinois: SB 75

Starting in 2020, Illinois’ Senate Bill 75 both defines state requirements for sexual harassment training for employers and clarifies requirements for certain business types, like bars and restaurants.

Connecticut: Time’s Up Act

Since October, 2019, the Time’s Up Act targets sexual harassment and sexual assault directly, with required training, notice posting, and reporting guidelines for employers throughout the state.

Maine: 26 M.R.S.A §807

This Maine law outlines the minimum requirements for employers “to ensure a workplace free to sexual harassment,” including (but not limited to) workplace posting, employee notification, education and training, and enforcement.

Delaware: HB 360

Delaware’s House Bill 360 “offer[s] broader protections for Delaware workers against sexual harassment than those found at the federal level by defining sexual harassment as an unlawful employment practice and clarifying the definition of employee to include state employees, persons providing services pursuant to a contract, or unpaid interns.”

New York: Local Law 96; Section 201-g of the Labor Law

New York State’s Section 201-G and New York City’s Local Law 96 outline definitions and requirements for anti-harassment training.

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How to Identify Sexual Harassment in the Workplace

How do you know if you or a colleague is experiencing illegal sexual harassment? Let’s investigate a bit further into the two main types of sexual harassment: quid pro quo and hostile work environment.

Quid Pro Quo

“Quid pro quo” in a colloquial sense means “something given in exchange for something else.

Quid pro quo harassment is when a person in authority trades, or tries to trade, sexual favors for job benefits.

Some examples of quid pro quo harassment include but are not limited to:
Offering job opportunities or better working conditions in exchange for a date
Threatening demotions or changes in location unless back rubs are provided
Denying opportunities, or retaliating in other ways if refused a weekend away
Forcing a relationship in exchange for a transfer to a better office location, etc.
Hostile Work Environment

Hostile work environment occurs when unwelcome comments or conduct of a sexual nature unreasonably interferes with an employee’s work performance or creates an intimidating, hostile, or offensive work environment.

Examples Include:
Viewing porn or posting inappropriate posters
Touching, pinching, grabbing, impeding physical movement
Making repeated unsuccessful requests for dates
Bullying, yelling, name-calling, etc.
*A hostile work enviornment can include (1) sexual or discriminatory displays, jokes, comments, or noises about a person’s sexuality or sexual experience and (2) hostile actions taken because of an individual’s sex.

What Supervisors Need to Know about Workplace Harassment

Not only must supervisors (including partners, managing directors, and anyone with direct reports) abide by the same guidelines above, but because they look out for the team, supervisors are required to:

Report any harassment or discrimination reported to them or that they observe

This is true even if no one is objecting to the harassment or discrimination, and even if the victim doesn’t want to make a report.

Properly address any harassment or discrimination they should have known about with reasonable care

Avoidance, or “the ostrich defense” i.e., putting your head in the sand will not work.

Be disciplined if they fail to report, fail to respond, or engage in retaliation.

Actions and inactions can worsen harassment or make their company liable so supervisors have both a moral and financial obligation to do the right thing.

How and When to Report Sexual Harassment


If you think that sexual harassment is occuring in your workplace, either to you or someone you work with, there are a variety of ways to report it.

To start, you can file online, call 1(800) 669-4000 or email [email protected]. Reports need to be made within 300 days of the incident, and must be filed with the EEOC before you can file in a federal court.

Within 300 days of the incident
Before filing in federal court
File online via the EEOC* Public Portal

Why Harassment Training is Needed

Harassment isn’t something you can just avoid and forget about—it’s pervasive. A 2018 Pew survey found that 59% of women and 27% of men reported experiencing sexual harassment. Of those that reported experiencing sexual harassment, 69% of women and 61% of men experienced it at work or both at work and outside of work.

These numbers mean you may have experienced harassment at work—and if you haven’t, it’s likely you have friends and colleagues who have.

Being a victim of sexual harassment in the workplace profoundly impacts a person, including lower job satisfaction and a higher intention to leave the workplace, and can extend to physical and emotional health.

Being treated disrespectfully at work is bad for you, your employees, and your workplace.

Still got questions about how sexual harassment prevention training can help your teams? We’ve got answers. Reach out now to talk to our sales team!
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