Types of sexual harassment and how to identify it

Sexual harassment is much more common than you think. With the prevalence of the #MeToo and the more recent, workplace-focused #TimesUp movements, more people are more openly sharing their experience with sexual harassment..

A 2019 report by the Center for Gender Equity and Health at UCSD and the California Coalition Against Sexual Assault shows that California has a higher rate of sexual harassment as compared with the rest of the country. Their data reflects that the incidence of sexual harassment is 5% higher for women and 10% higher for men in the state.

The best way to protect yourself from sexual harassment in the workplace is by keeping yourself informed. Take the time to understand the different types of sexual harassment so you can easier identify when you fall victim.

What qualifies as sexual harassment?

Sexual harassment in the workplace is qualified as sexual discrimination. This violates Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and California’s Fair Employment and Housing Act.

Under California law, sexual harassment in the workplace can be motivated by various reasons aside from sexual desire. Sexual harassment can be based on the following:

  • Perceived or actual sex or gender-identity
  • Perceived or actual sexual orientation
  • Gender expression
  • Marital status
  • Pregnancy
  • Childbirth
  • Medical condition/s

Also, sexual harassment isn’t as straightforward as it seems. It’s not limited to blatant acts like requests for sexual favors or showing favoritism based on sex. The act itself can take many forms: verbal, physical, and visual

Types of sexual harassment

California’s Fair Employment and Housing Act categorizes sexual harassment into two: quid pro quo harassment and hostile work environment harassment.

What is quid pro quo harassment?

Quid pro quo translates to something for something or this for that. This type of harassment happens when an employee is asked, explicitly or indirectly, for a sexual favor by a supervisor to gain an advantage at work (e.g. a promotion, salary increase, and employment benefits) or receive favorable treatment.

It’s also considered quid pro quo harassment if an employee is coerced into something to avoid negative outcomes at work or if there are threats of punishment. A common example of this is when an employee’s continued employment is contingent on them doing sexual favors.

Identifying quid pro quo harassment

The perpetrator needs to have the authority to take concrete employment action against the victim. Only a manager, supervisor, or someone who’s in a position of power can commit quid pro quo harassment. 

Quid pro quo harassment always happens between a superior or someone who has more authority or power in the company and a subordinate. Here are some examples of situations not considered quid pro quo harassment:

  • A consensual relationship between a superior and a subordinate where their actions do not affect their work relationship or the workplace
  • A consensual relationship between two employees
  • An exchange or sexual activity that isn’t involved or linked to work decisions
  • Exchange for benefits or to avoid negative consequences that is not sexual in nature

If a coworker demands sexual favors, that is not considered quid pro quo harassment but it can create a work environment that is its own form of harassment.

Hostile work environment harassment

If a workplace becomes intolerable or an employee’s ability to do their job is hindered because of someone’s constant inappropriate behavior, then they’re in a hostile work environment.

A hostile work environment, in the case of sexual harassment, is caused by constant inappropriate sexual or gender-based actions, comments, and the like. 

Identifying hostile work environment harassment

Unlike quid pro quo, this type of harassment can be perpetrated by both coworkers and supervisors. Hostile work environment harassment can be:

  • Unwelcome conduct based on sex
  • Specifically targeting an employee
  • An individual displaying hostile or offensive photos
  • Telling sexual or inappropriate jokes, slurs, and innuendos

For the conduct to qualify as hostile work environment harassment, it must happen frequently, be severe, or both. The timing and context of the act is also an important consideration. Actions that do not constitute a hostile work environment are:

  • Incidents that happen occasionally
  • Isolated incidents
  • Trivial acts

Keeping yourself informed about the types of sexual harassment and how to identify them is your first step to protecting yourself against abuse. If you think you’re a victim of harassment, know who to turn to.


Contact Hogue & Belong to explore your legal options 


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