Suggestions for Employee Action
last updated November 1, 2003

The following is a discussion of suggested ways in which employees might respond to sexual harassment.  The suggested actions described here may not be appropriate in all circumstances.  Employees should consult an attorney or counselor about sexually harassing behavior they encounter because there may be legal implications to the actions they take in response to such behavior.

Various international organizations and national governmental agencies encourage employees to take actions to avoid or minimize the harm caused by sexual harassment. In some countries, the success of a civil claim of harassment depends in part on whether the employee making the claim has taken certain steps to prevent or mitigate damages.

As the European Commission notes, "[e]mployees have a clear role to play in helping to create a climate at work in which sexual harassment is unacceptable. They can contribute to preventing sexual harassment through an awareness and sensitivity towards the issue and by ensuring that standards of conduct for themselves and for colleagues do not cause offence. Employees can do much to discourage sexual harassment by making it clear that they find such behaviour unacceptable and by supporting colleagues who suffer such treatment and are considering making a complaint." From EU Code of Practice on Measures to Combat Sexual Harassment included in Commission Recommendation of 27 November 1991 on the protection of the dignity of women and men at work, Official Journal L 049, 7 (24 February 1992).

There are five principal steps that governmental and non-governmental organizations suggest that employees take in response to sexually harassing behavior in the workplace: 1) informing the harasser that the conduct is unwelcome and should cease; 2) documenting the harassment; 3) reporting the harassment to the employer using the available complaint or grievance system; 4) cooperating with the investigation of the complaint; and 5) consider making a claim with civil authorities.

1) Informing the Harasser that the Conduct is Unwelcome and Should Cease

When practicable, a victim of harassment may communicate with the harasser directly to let him or her know that the conduct is unwelcome and that it should stop. This response may be particularly effective in stopping the harassment if the victim has been the target of relatively minor instances of harassment, e.g., sexually explicit comments or jokes. If the victim decides to confront the harasser, she or he should explain why she or he considers the behavior offensive and unacceptable. This will assist the victim in demonstrating to the employer, court or government agency that the conduct constitutes unlawful sexual harassment because it is "unwelcome" or "unwanted."  For more information on the "welcomeness" standard please see the section entitled "Sexual Harassment is Conduct that is Unwelcome or Unwanted".

In some cases of harassment, especially serious instances of harassment, e.g., sexual touching or propositions, it may not be practicable for the victim to speak directly to the harasser. In these cases, the victim should take steps to document and report the offensive behavior to the employer as described below in lieu of confrontation. A victim of assault, rape or other criminal conduct should immediately inform the proper criminal authorities about the conduct.

2) Documenting the Harassment

It is advisable for employees to record behavior they find offensive, as well as any actions they take to stop the behavior including notifying the person responsible for the behavior that the behavior is unacceptable. This documentation should be specific and comprehensive, including details, times, dates of incidents and names of witnesses. The notes should include a description of what behavior was offensive, how the employee felt about it and how the employee reacted to the offensive behavior. This documentation will greatly assist any investigation conducted by the employer or the civil and criminal authorities.

It is also advisable for the employee to confide in a trusting friend and relay to that person the details about the harassment incident(s) described above.

3) Reporting the Harassment to the Employer Using the Available Complaint or Grievance System

Informing the harasser that the behavior is unwelcome may be enough to put an end to the harassment. If the behavior continues or if communicating with the harasser is not practicable (e.g., in severe cases of harassment), employees should (1) inform management and/or their employee representative through the informal or formal complaint or grievance mechanisms established by the employer and (2) request counseling and assistance in stopping the harassment.

4) Cooperating with the Investigation of the Complaint

It is advisable that a sexual harassment complainant cooperate with all aspects of the investigation of her complaint, providing testimony about what has happened, notes, and names of witnesses to the designated investigating body.

5) Consider Making a Claim with Civil Authorities

If the harasser and the employer have not appropriately responded to a complaint of sexual harassment by an employee, she or he should consider filing a complaint with a governmental agency designated to receive such complaints.

Adapted from Canadian Human Rights Commission, Harassment: What It Is and What To Do About It (1998); United Kingdom Equal Opportunity Commission, Sexual Harassment—Don't put up with it (PDF, 4pages); Prevention of Harassment & Discrimination: A Guide to the Promotion of a Professional Working Environment in the OSCE [PDF, 2 pages]; EEOC Enforcement Guidance: Vicarious Employer Liability for Unlawful Harassment by supervisors No. 915.002, 11-18 (June 18, 1999); Model Anti-Harassment Policies and Information Pamphlet for Employees, British Columbia Human Rights Commission (2000).