Lesson 3: How to Recognize Subtle Sexual Harassment 13m

Subtle sexual harassment is unwelcome sexual or sex-based behavior that, if allowed to continue, could create illegal sexual harassment.

Subtle Sexual Harassment is not a legal term.  It is a practical term for identifying subtle unwelcome sexual behavior. Once that behavior is identified, it is then possible to effectively deal with that behavior.

The video below addresses sexual harassment in the workplace in media.

Knowing your rights: Sexual Harassment in the Workplace 7:39min

The Five- Step Method

The following Five-Step method can assist you in determining when behavior crosses the line between friendly behavior and subtle sexual harassment.

Step One

Identify the people in the interaction.

Usually it will be obvious who is directly involved in the interaction.  It is also necessary to determine if there are third parties present who could be affected by the behavior.

Step Two

Determine their relationship.

Do the people involved have a typical work relationship; i.e. They talk primarily about work related issues and do not socialize outside of the workplace except at work related events.  If you see sexual or sex-based behavior between them, it is important to apply the next steps.

If the people have a good friendship and they are engaged in sexual or sex-based behavior that is acceptable to both parties, their behavior could still create a hostile work environment for other employees: Caution: If the people involved in the interaction have a good friendship, that does not automatically mean that both people welcome that behavior.

Step Three

Objectively describe the behavior.

Describe specifically what happened. Include the behaviors of all the people identified in Step One.

Step Four

Determine if the behavior described in Step Three was welcome.

Use the following methods:

A. Does (Do) the recipient(s) clearly indicate verbally and/or nonverbally that the behavior is unwelcome? If she/he/they does (do), go to Step Five. If not continue to B.

 B. Does (Do) the recipient(s) equally imitate the behavior, i.e., ask that person to engage in          that behavior, sometimes behave that same way to that person first?   If your answer is no, go to Step Five.  If it is yes, go to C.

C. Does (Do) the recipient(s) equally participate in that behavior, i.e., engage in the same or very similar behavior to the person initiating the behavior? If your answer is no, go to Step Five. If yes continue to D.

D. It is doubtful that either person is being sexually harassed.  But, their sexual or sex-based behavior could be inappropriate and should stop.  Their behavior could be unwelcome to third party persons.  If the behavior described in Step Three is sexual or sex-based and the third party person(s) does (do) not appear to equally participate in and initiate that behavior, it probably is unwelcome.  That situation should be dealt with to ensure that third party sexual harassment does not occur.


To determine if the behavior is welcome, it is important to focus on the impact of the behavior, not the intent of the person doing the behavior.  Avoid “Yes … buts …” i.e., “Yes, she touched me, but that is her personality.” “Yes, he makes sexual comments, but he’s harmless.” “Yes, … “ is an objective description of the behavior while “ but …” is a subjective reaction that often makes excuses for the person initiating the behavior and stops the objective process of determining if the sexual or sex-based behavior is welcome.

Step Five

Is the unwelcome behavior sexual or sex-based behavior?

If the behavior is obviously sexual, it is sexual harassment or, if it is derogatory about men or women, it is sex-based harassment.

IF the behavior is similar to the examples of sexual harassment listed in this manual or dramatized in the video, then that behavior is sexual harassment or sex-based harassment

Would that person be subjected to that behavior if she/he were of the opposite sex of what she/he is, i.e., males who look a woman up and down when she walks by them would not behave in the same way when a man walked by?  If not, then is it sexual harassment or sex-based harassment.


This Five-Step process provides a very objective method to assess personal behavior and the interactions of other employees to determine when friendly or joking behavior and crosses the line into subtle sexual harassment or sex-based harassment. If it has, that behavior should stop immediately.