How to Identify and Report Sexual Harassment in the Workplace

sexual harassment

Sexual harassment at work is a pervasive problem, but it’s not always recognized — or reported. In 2018, the U.S. Equal Opportunity Employment Commission (EEOC) received 7,609 charges of sexual harassment in the workplace. That figure likely represents a fraction of alleged instances, because nearly 30 percent of women say they have been sexually harassed, and 25 percent of U.S. adults report having witnessed a colleague being sexual harassed at work.

As an employee, and a woman, it’s important to know what sexual harassment is and what you can do if you experience or witness it in the workplace. Here are some key things to look for, along with resources for documenting and reporting the harassment.

What It Is

Sexual harassment on the job is discrimination, plain and simple. It takes many forms, but some of the most common are uninvited comments, conduct or behaviors that reference sex, gender or sexual orientation. According to the EEOC, “Harassment can include ‘sexual harassment’ or unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical harassment of a sexual nature.”

Specific examples of what sexual harassment might look like at work include:

  • Sharing inappropriate images or videos of a sexual nature
  • Sending suggestive emails, notes or letters
  • Making inappropriate sexual hand gestures
  • Touching another employee inappropriately

It’s important to note that a single instance of teasing, or an offhand comment, is not necessarily considered sexual harassment. But when the conduct or behaviors occur frequently, and are so severe that they interfere with your ability to do your job or create an uncomfortable atmosphere, they become illegal.

How to Report It

Documentation is critical in reporting instances of suspected sexual harassment. It’s preferable to make your complaints in writing — via email if possible. If your company has a human resources (HR) department, send an email to the HR director or a senior-level employee in the department. If your company does not have an HR department, check to see if there is a company policy about how to file complaints and with whom.

If there’s no policy, make your complaint in writing and send it to the highest-level officer at the company, or even the owner if they are accessible. Again, email is preferable for record-keeping purposes. You may also consider blind copying or forwarding your email complaint to your home email address so that you have a record of the email that is beyond the control of your employer.

If the HR function is outsourced, there may be a hotline you can use to file a report. Be aware that any report about a protected issue like sexual harassment should not be made anonymously. Identify yourself and keep a record of the date and time you accessed the hotline, along with phone records documenting the call. That way, if the complaint triggers retaliation, you’ll have a record of the call and there will be no question as to who made the complaint.

For instances where reporting via email isn’t possible, or there’s no hotline to access, you may be able to legally record the phone call or conversation during which you make the complaint. Before pressing the record button, be sure to check your state’s laws about third-party consent, as well as the laws of the state where any party to the conversation is located during the conversation. In a one-party consent state, like Georgia, it’s legal to record without announcing that you are doing so, as long as you are a party to the conversation and all other parties are located in the same state. On the other hand, certain states require all parties to the call or conversation to grant permission for it to be recorded. If anyone who will be participating in the conversation is located in a two-party state, for your protection, be sure to get permission from all participants before starting to record, and capture all participants giving their permission on the actual recording as well.

If you believe you have experienced or witnessed sexual harassment in a workplace environment, being aware of what qualifies as sexual harassment can help you avoid the behavior and be prepared report any instances of it. When in doubt, trust your gut instincts. Consulting with a lawyer may also be helpful, especially for identifying whether you should take legal action or file a complaint at the federal or state level. If the company you work for has more than 15 employees, you have choices: you can consult with an attorney for help with your claim and can also file a complaint at the federal level with the EEOC. If your company has fewer than 15 employees, an attorney can talk with you about bringing your claim under state law.

At the end of a sexual harassment case that we won for her, a client of my firm said, “I will never forget the type of discipline and commitment that it takes to fight power.” Reporting sexual harassment may not be a smooth or easy road, but justice is worth fighting for and everyone’s voice deserves to be heard.

Amanda A. Farahany

Amanda A. Farahany is a skilled Atlanta employment attorney and litigator who represents individual employees with claims related to sexual harassment, Family Medical Leave Act, discrimination, libel and overtime. She is managing partner at Barrett & Farahany, where she is dedicated to pursuing civil justice for employees, as well as providing consultation and support to management employees and executives. Amanda’s cases are regularly followed by the press. She seeks change for both individuals and society, has been recognized through numerous awards and achievements, and serves in many leadership roles. Additionally, Amanda is an adjunct professor of law at Emory Law School, teaching Advanced Trial Advocacy to third-year students. She can be reached at 404-238-7299 or
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