What is covert sexual harassment?

Covert sexual harassment in the workplace is a subtle but pervasive problem that undermines a professional environment and employee well-being. Unlike its more obvious counterparts, covert harassment isn’t always easily identifiable. It often manifests in behaviors that might seem innocent or be disguised as jokes but which carry a sexual undertone that can create a hostile or intimidating work environment.

This includes a range of actions, from sexually suggestive pictures displayed in personal workspaces to jokes that are sexual in nature. Though seemingly minor at first, these actions can contribute to a workplace atmosphere that can be uncomfortable, unwelcoming or unsafe for employees.

Understanding covert sexual harassment

Covert sexual harassment is often cloaked in the guise of humor, casual comments or “harmless” office traditions. It can be difficult to pinpoint because it’s woven into everyday interactions in a way that can seem normal to those not targeted. This normalization may allow the behavior to continue unchecked because of a lack of consequences.

Examples of this type of harassment include sharing sexually suggestive content under the pretense of it being funny, making offhand comments about someone’s appearance in a sexual manner or persistent, unwelcome flirting. Harassers can easily dismiss these behaviors as being part of a workplace culture or misinterpreted as friendly banter.

The impact on employees and workplace culture

The effects of covert sexual harassment on employees can be profound, leading to increased stress, decreased job satisfaction and even physical health issues. Victims may feel isolated or alienated from their colleagues, particularly if they perceive that others are complicit in or indifferent to the harassment.

Addressing and preventing covert sexual harassment

Addressing covert sexual harassment requires a multifaceted approach that involves policy, education and culture change. Companies must establish clear policies that define and prohibit all forms of sexual harassment, including those that might be considered covert. Swift action must be taken when this behavior is reported.

Victims of sexual harassment must be empowered to speak up so that a company can stop the unwanted behavior. Seeking legal assistance can help victims to learn their rights and develop a plan to take action regarding any conduct that may be unlawful.

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