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Verbal sexual harassment: What crosses the line?

Sexual harassment takes a variety of forms. In some cases, the harassment involves physical contact and aggressive actions. However, most sexual harassment in the workplace is more subtle and less physical.

Many times, sexual harassment can leave victims questioning whether their complaint is legitimate or not. Do the comments or emails cross the line? Or are words just words?

Comments or emails can be the easiest form of sexual harassment for a victim to try to ignore. Victims sometimes feel nervous about filing a formal complaint against a coworker or supervisor because they fear they will be retaliated against or feel that their colleagues will treat them differently. They may wonder if what's being said even constitutes sexual harassment, particularly if the abuser tries to pass the words off as a joke.

While not every comment rises to the level of harassment, a joke can still constitute sexual harassment and all sexual harassment is serious. The keys to determining whether a coworker is sexually harassing you is whether the words or conduct were "unwelcome" and whether they created an environment that a reasonable person would consider intimidating, hostile or abusive.

Some examples of sexual harassment in the workplace include:

  • Pressure to perform sexual favors
  • Pressure for dates
  • Unwanted remarks or teasing
  • Referring to someone by an unflattering or offensive name
  • Whistling or cat calling
  • Sexual innuendos
  • Sexual comments of any kind that are unwelcome
  • Text messages or emails with sexual comments, content or pictures

Words can be the hardest form of sexual harassment to classify. To a certain extent, we are taught to think that words are just words. However, words aren't just words. Everyone has the right to work in an environment free from sexual harassment.

Don't ignore sexual harassment by trying to pass off words as "just words." Verbal harassment can be sexual harassment, and you have every right to defend yourself against any form of abuse. Even if you are unsure if an unwanted comment rises to the level of sexual harassment, you should document the incident and report it to Human Resources or a supervisor. If you are uncomfortable reporting the incident within your company or organization, you should contact an employment attorney to discuss your rights and determine the best way to protect yourself at work.

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