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Verbal Sexual Harassment: What it is and How to Avoid it

| Content Marketing Manager  
As Paradigm’s Content Marketing Manager, Allison utilizes her research and writing expertise, experience in working cross-collaboratively amongst teams, and drive to create compelling content around diversity, equity, and inclusion.


Verbal sexual harassment can happen anywhere, and the workplace is no exception. This behavior is a serious problem that affects individuals of all genders, sexual orientations, and backgrounds. Studies have found that a majority of women and half of all men have experienced some form of sexual harassment.

Whether it be in-person, virtually, through text, or over a phone call, verbal sexual harassment can take many forms, including unwanted sexual advances, comments or jokes about a person’s body or sexual orientation, and threats or intimidation.

Verbal Sexual Harassment Examples

The following can be considered sexual harassment:

  • Making sexual comments or jokes with a sexual context
  • Asking someone personal and inappropriate questions about their sexual history or preferences
  • Sending unsolicited sexually explicit images
  • Sending suggestive or obscene emails
  • Excessive and unwelcome flirting
  • Unwelcome sexual advances
  • Making sexual gestures or motions
  • Making derogatory comments or using offensive language related to someone’s gender or sexuality
  • Making threats of a sexual nature or jokes about sexual assault
  • Requests for sexual favors

It’s important to know verbal sexual harassment is not always overt or obvious. In many cases, it may be subtle or disguised as “harmless” teasing or joking of a sexual nature. However, even subtle forms of verbal sexual harassment can have a significant impact on the person experiencing it, leading to feelings of anxiety, fear, and even depression.

How to Avoid and Address Verbal Sexual Harassment

Employees have the right to work in an environment that is safe. If they’ve experienced unwanted behavior like verbal sexual harassment, they can do something about it. Here are some ways employers can create a culture where verbal sexual harassment is less likely to happen.

Calling Out Inappropriate Behavior

When addressing verbal sexual harassment, one should speak up when witnessing or experiencing it. If someone is making a co-worker feel uncomfortable or threatened, it’s important to tell them to stop and to report the behavior to a supervisor or authority figure if necessary.

It’s also important to recognize verbal sexual harassment and be aware of one’s own behavior to make sure that it’s not contributing to a culture of workplace sexual harassment. This means being respectful of others’ boundaries and not making offhand comments or jokes that could be considered offensive or harassing.

Implement Training That Creates a Culture of Respect and Inclusion

It’s important to create a culture of respect and inclusion in your workplace. This can be done by investing in diversity, equity, and inclusion, fostering open communication, and providing sexual harassment training.

While harassment training should provide all employees with an understanding of what constitutes verbal sexual harassment and the steps employees should take if they experience or witness it happening, it should go beyond just checking those compliance boxes. Instead, it should be approached as an opportunity to further overall inclusion and designed to actually reduce sexual harassment in the workplace.

Finally, studies indicate that training that takes a restorative approach leads to positive outcomes, including a greater sense of self-esteem and improved mental health.

Understanding Employer Sexual Harassment Policy

Inappropriate behavior does not need to violate sexual harassment laws to violate an employer’s policy, which can be more expensive. Policies should be clearly established, documented in writing, and accompanied by procedures for reporting verbal sexual harassment and addressing it. It is important to ensure that these policies are widely communicated and easily accessible to all employees.

Showing Support and Taking Action

It’s not always easy to respond when witnessing or experiencing sexual harassment and it can get even more complicated when it involves power and interpersonal dynamics. This leads to a variety of feelings that might prevent someone from reporting unwelcome sexual harassment, such as fearing social or professional retaliation from someone senior, feeling guilty if it involves a co-worker with whom a person has a close relationship, or concerns about judgment or perceived consequences by peers.

That’s why it’s important for employers to create a culture of respect and inclusion, where employees feel comfortable coming forward and speaking out against verbal sexual harassment. Employers should also take action in case of any reported workplace harassment of a sexual nature by conducting an investigation, taking appropriate disciplinary action, and providing support to the victim.

Contact Our Experts

Employees and employers need to understand what sexual harassment is, when it happens, and how to handle it. If you want to learn more about providing an anti-harassment workplace and fostering a more inclusive culture, our experts are here to help. Schedule a call today!

February 23, 2023

If you want to learn more about harassment training, contact us today!