Know Your Rights at Work

Sexual Harassment

Colleague’s Guide: What’s My Role?

What Is Sexual Harassment?

Sexual harassment is a form of sex discrimination that violates Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits discrimination in employment on the basis of sex, race, color, national origin, and religion, and it applies to employers with 15 or more employees. The law also makes it illegal to retaliate against a person because the person complained about discrimination, filed a charge of discrimination, or participated in an employment discrimination investigation or lawsuit. It applies to federal, state, and local governments, as well as employment agencies and labor organizations.

Unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, or other verbal or physical conduct are behaviors that might constitute sexual harassment if they are used to sexually coerce or create a hostile work environment. It does not have to be of a sexual nature, however, and can include offensive remarks related to a person’s sex. For example, conduct like making offensive comments about women in general, can be deemed sexual harassment.

What’s My Role?

Simply put, when it comes to incidents of sexual harassment, if you see something, say something. Call out sexist behavior or comments when they occur, as these can also add to a hostile climate. Be a vocal support system for gender equity in your office. The courageous act of speaking up can change your employment culture and help to create more inclusive social norms at work.

Don’t be a silent bystander and instead stand up for your colleagues as they report their experiences. Be an ally. If your colleague is nervous about reporting prohibited behavior, offer to accompany her or him during the reporting process. Available support systems are very important when coming forward with harassment experiences.


  1. Consult your employee handbook or policies. If your employer has a sexual harassment policy in place, follow it. Put complaints in writing. Take notes on the harassment and be specific in your details.
  2. If you feel comfortable, tell your supervisor about the behavior and the steps you have taken to address it. If you do not feel comfortable speaking with your supervisor directly, report the behavior to the human resources department or the person responsible for workplace complaints. For example, your company may have an internal Equal Employment Opportunity Officer or another way for you to file an internal complaint.
  3. Another option is to file a complaint with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) – the federal agency charged with enforcing many antidiscrimination laws. If you have witnessed sexual harassment, you have the right to file a discrimination complaint with the EEOC. You don’t need an attorney to file a complaint, so don’t wait! You only have 180 calendar days from the date of the discriminatory activity to file a claim. The 180 day filing deadline is extended to 300 calendar days if a state or local agency enforces a state or local law that prohibits employment discrimination on the same basis. The EEOC’s website offers more information on filing a charge.

Retaliation — What You Need to Know

Those who experience harassment and hostility in the workplace can face the very real fear of retaliation and retribution for telling their stories. Not wanting to be branded troublemakers or wanting to put their paychecks and careers at risk, many women choose not to speak up. Some may wait until they leave the company or the career field entirely — if they come forward at all.

It’s important to note, however, that employers are legally prohibited from retaliating against an employee who reports sexual harassment. If you report discriminatory behavior or participate in an investigation on behalf of a colleague, you are protected from adverse employment actions such as terminations and other actions designed to dissuade a reasonable employee from reporting discrimination.

It is important that this protection is communicated from the top down at a company so that supervisors are also informed of the consequences for retaliation. The fear of reprisal is all too real for many workers. It’s invaluable to have support systems made up of family, friends, and colleagues to have your back while you move through the system.