January 26, 2023

A recent survey by Cornell University’s School of Industrial Labor Relations found that only 6% of US adults employed in industries with the highest rates of sexual misconduct could correctly identify seven work scenarios as sexual harassment. Each instance provided legal grounds to file a sexual harassment complaint. 

The survey highlights the difficulty that targets of sexual harassment and bystanders often have in identifying the physical, verbal and visual forms of misconduct, which are not always obvious. When unrecognized, unreported or unaddressed due to a lack of awareness or a fear of retaliation, sexual harassment can have serious legal implications and negatively affect workplace morale, engagement and retention.  

Ongoing sexual harassment prevention training plays a key role in raising workplace awareness of what harassment looks like, ways to safely intervene and how to report it. Currently, seven states requiring employers to provide sexual harassment training, including California, Connecticut, Delaware, Illinois, Maine, New York and Washington state. As of July 1, 2022, Chicago became the latest city to impose new annual sexual harassment prevention and bystander training requirements for employees and managers. 

Making Sexual Harassment Visible Through Training 

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) defines sexual harassment as unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature that affects an individual’s employment, unreasonably interferes with an individual’s work performance, or creates an intimidating, hostile or offensive work environment.  

Although sexual harassment is a problem across many industries, varying work environments and types of harassment can make it difficult for employees and managers to recognize inappropriate behavior when it occurs. To address this, the EEOC recommends employers provide ongoing anti-harassment training to employees and managers that incorporates “the daily experiences and unique characteristics of the work, workforce, and workplace.” 

The takeaway? Sexual harassment in the workplace isn’t always clear-cut. The solution is to provide continual sexual harassment prevention training that helps workers bridge the gap between the training experience and on-the-job applications. By inserting learners into an interactive narrative where they must process realistic scenarios to correctly identify forms of sexual harassment, organizations can raise employee awareness of inappropriate conduct to foster a safer, more respectful work environment.  

3 Types of Sexual Harassment 

Many forms of behavior can constitute sexual harassment in the workplace. Employers should be alert to 3 types of sexual misconduct. 

Physical Sexual Harassment  

Unwanted physical contact that makes a co-worker uncomfortable can be considered sexual harassment. Handshakes, high fives or a light tap on the shoulder are innocuous and hard to consider sexual. However, other kinds of physical contact without a valid nonsexual reason can be problematic. Examples include:  

  • Giving a massage around the neck or shoulders 
  • Hugging, kissing, patting or stroking 
  • Unwelcome touching on any part of a person’s body 
  • Brushing or bumping up against another person 
  • Leaning over or standing too close 
  • Touching or rubbing oneself sexually around another person 
  • Following someone, cornering or obstructing their movement 
  • Sexual assault  

Verbal Sexual Harassment 

Sexual harassment is not limited to physical contact. Verbal behavior can also be considered sexual harassment when it makes a co-worker uncomfortable. Examples include:  

  • Catcalling 
  • Sexual remarks, jokes, or stories 
  • Innuendos 
  • Kissing noises 
  • Sexist comments 
  • Sexual comments about a person’s clothes, hair, complexion or physique 
  • Repeatedly asking out someone not interested 
  • Verbal sexual advances, invitations or propositions  

Visual Sexual Harassment 

Visual behavior and content can also cross the line of professional conduct to become sexual harassment, and includes electronic content such as social media, texts and emails. Examples include: 

  • Looking at a person up and down 
  • Leering or staring 
  • Making facial expressions such as winking, throwing kisses or licking lips 
  • Making lewd gestures with hands or through body movements 
  • Leaving someone notes with sexual messages or pictures 
  • Sending suggestive videos, website links, photos, emails or text messages 
  • Displaying suggestive objects, pictures, cartoons or posters 
  • Removal of clothing in front of someone 

Traliant Insight 

Sexual harassment can be overt or subtle, as a harasser’s behavior can take many forms. Ongoing sexual harassment prevention training that is tailored to industry and real-life work scenarios can help employees and managers identify, disrupt and report forms of sexual harassment, while also helping organizations comply with state and city mandated training requirements. 



Mark Hudson