What Is Indirect Sexual Harassment? 
| Read Time: 3 minutes | Sexual Harassment

You do not have to be the target of someone’s sexually discriminatory behavior to be a victim of sexual harassment in the workplace. Sexual harassment can be direct or indirect. If you believe you are the victim of harassment, you should consult with one of our top-tier attorneys at King & Siegel LLP. We have the know-how and successful track record to help you maximize your claim.

Am I Being Sexually Harassed? 

When does inappropriate behavior in a work setting become unlawful sexual harassment? And what is indirect sexual harassment? Let’s start with the basics. 

While harassment comes in many forms, Title VII of the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the California Fair Employment and Housing Act define sexual harassment in two ways. Sexual harassment is unwelcome, sex-based discrimination that does one of the following: 

  • Creates or attempts to create a quid pro quo relationship—quid pro quo sexual harassment takes place when a supervisor or employer requires an employee to endure unwanted sexual demands or sex-based behavior in exchange for employment benefits or professional advancement; or 
  • Creates a hostile work environment—harassment is hostile work environment harassment when the unwanted, sex-based behavior is so pervasive or severe that a reasonable person in the victim’s shoes would consider the work environment intolerable.

Remember that this harassment does not have to be motivated by the harasser’s sexual desire to be illegal. Harassment must be unwelcome and qualify as quid pro quo or hostile behavior to be actionable. 

Common examples of sexual harassment include the following sex-based behaviors: 

  • Offensive jokes,
  • Repeated and unwanted requests for dates,
  • Invasions of privacy, 
  • Non-consensual touching, 
  • Name-calling, 
  • Insults, 
  • Excluding others because of their sex or gender, 
  • Stereotyping comments, 
  • Comments about appearance or body parts, 
  • Sexually explicit conversations or questioning, 
  • Demands from management for sexual favors, and
  • Displays of graphic material. 

If the harassment you experience is not quid pro quo, you likely will have to prove that the harassing behavior occurred more than once. However, if one instance of non-quid-pro-quo harassment is extreme, that is sometimes sufficient to win a hostile work environment complaint. 

What Does Indirect Sexual Harassment Look Like? 

Now that you know how the law defines sexual harassment, let’s delve into how indirect harassment crops up. What is indirect sexual harassment? It is any type of unlawful, sex-based behavior that is not focused on you but makes you feel unsafe in your workplace. To get an idea of how this happens, look at the examples below. 

Overheard Offensive Comments

Do you have someone in your office who likes to joke about a group of individuals because of their sex or gender? Or does someone at work speak to one of your colleagues in a derogatory way because of their sexual orientation? Even though the harasser may direct these comments at someone else, they may make you uncomfortable and affect your work environment. If these comments come from someone in management, they could make you concerned that you, too, will be victim of discrimination or harassment. When someone in your workplace puts you in this position, it may be an illegal hostile work environment. 

Witnessed, Non-consensual Touching or Invasions of Privacy

An individual in a work setting who touches others without consent, follows others, or enters others’ physical space in an unwanted way might be liable not only for sexual harassment but also for criminal misconduct. If you witness this type of misconduct, you could understandably feel an ever-present threat of physical danger, and you may be able to sue your employer for failing to prevent this atmosphere. 

Side Effects of Quid Pro Quo Harassment 

If you know about a quid pro quo sexual relationship between one of your co-workers and management, you might think it is a violation that only affects that co-worker. While the colleague who receives requests for sexual favors in exchange for employment perks may be a victim, they are not the only victim. You could be a victim as well. 

If a co-worker in one of these relationships is presented with or receives benefits for accepting sexual advances, this could mean that you are being denied benefits because of sexual favoritism toward someone else. Also, knowing that an employer requires sexual acts from its employees for job security can make anyone feel unsafe. 

Taking Legal Action

Whether you are the target of or witness to sex-based discrimination at work, you can seek and receive legal relief for the harm that conduct causes. To recover damages and other remedies, you can file a sexual harassment complaint with the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing, a charge with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, or a lawsuit in court. And you should speak to an experienced lawyer immediately so they can timely file your claim and maximize your damages. 

Hire an Award-Winning Attorney

At King & Seigel, our attorneys have trained at top law schools and the country’s biggest and best litigation firms. We are also award-winning lawyers who get big results in court. But most importantly, we care about your story and winning the legal relief you deserve. Let us know if you need help with an employment dispute. You pay us only if we win for you, so there is no harm in talking to us about your case. You can reach us online or call us to schedule a consultation. 

Author Photo

Julian Burns King graduated with honors from Harvard Law School and founded King & Siegel in 2018. As head of the Firm’s discrimination and harassment practice areas, she champions the rights of working parents and victims of workplace discrimination and harassment. She has been recognized as a “Rising Star” by Super Lawyers annually since 2018 and has recovered tens of millions of dollars on behalf of her clients.

Read More Articles by Julian Burns King