I am currently looking for a job, and I am going to say that #MeToo has made me quite scared of just what might be called sexual harassment in an American workplace. I can also mention that I quit my last job over a sort of obsession with the "exact" definition of sexual harassment when talking about it resulted in a complaint against me, which was not communicated to me the best. It sort of left me with the impression that I couldn't talk about this at all when it was intended to keep me from talking about this all the time (I have since gotten that much clarification at least from the manager.)

I'm mostly asking about whether behaviors like pats on the back without consent, compliments on appearance, and expressing desire to "date" employees constitute sexual harassment in workplaces in the USA. In particular, if there is any kind of national standard for definitions of such, in part so I can't just call anything and everything that I can claim made me "uncomfortable" sexual harassment! I recognize that without a federal or state standard, or at the very least a general guideline, this question would get workplace-specific and warrant me asking HR at the workplace(s) in question (which would be almost anywhere I get an interview.)

This is where "double standards" can also rear their ugly heads, and I morally will not tolerate any policies that make it more of an offense if a man does it than if a woman does. While I understand that many more men than women would feel flattered more than uncomfortable with this conduct, this is still not an excuse to take men who are borderline sexually harassed like this who are uncomfortable any less seriously than similarly uncomfortable women. Yes, it's opinion, but it's also a part of my conscience that I feel very strongly about, and I will not compromise it for the sake of immediate employment.

So I guess if I had to ask about one specific behavior: are pats on the back without explicit verbal consent very often considered sexual harassment in U.S. workplaces? Information about other, similar behaviors would be appreciated too.

EDIT: A key piece of information about this question: I quit of my own accord. I wasn't fired.

  • 3
    Good luck, all I'm going to say on the subject is "thread lightly".
    – Jeffrey
    Jun 13, 2019 at 23:52
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    Hey Guitar Hero, I'm a guy and I also find sexual harassment double standards reprehensible. But I've got to say, you have a huge chip on your shoulders. Either that, or you must be independently wealthy for you not to compromise your principles for the sake of immediate employment. Jun 14, 2019 at 0:21
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    Your logic seems to be, if I think it's alright for women to touch me, then it's only fair if I am allowed to touch them. It's not alright to touch anybody if they don't want it, and certainly not in the workplace, where they are trapped.
    – RedSonja
    Jun 14, 2019 at 13:04
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    If this is somewhat confusing to you then there's a good chance you're not understanding what's okay and what's not. If you're afraid, it's because you don't understand what's okay and what's not. It's not okay to make sexual comments or jokes or make comments on someone's looks. Touching is usually at all off limits. You may find yourself in a situation where you are your co-worker allow light shoulder pads or compliments but you need to be damn sure that it's more than a co-worker, that is, a good friend. If in doubt, or you get a hint that it's not welcome, just don't. You'll be fine.
    – Jonast92
    Jun 14, 2019 at 14:31
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    You seem to be asking a meaningful question (What is the standard for sexual harassment in the US?) but clouding it with a lot of emotion and fear. That's a shame because it seems to be drawing a lot of downvotes. You may be able to improve your question with some edits to tone down your first and third paragraphs.
    – dwizum
    Jun 14, 2019 at 14:32

3 Answers 3


Per the EEOC and authoritative guidance from HR professionals, sexual harassment is judged in the eyes of the law using an objective reasonable person standard. What the term "reasonable person" means is whether / how an ordinary, rational person will likely interpret the conduct under those particular circumstances. If that person themselves found the conduct to be offensive and harassing perhaps say due to having a grudge, or just being extraordinarily sensitive, but a another normal human being under those circumstances would not, then the law is not likely to accept the situation as sexual harassment.

The other standard for what is considered to sexual conduct is that, assuming the victim to be the "reasonable person" as defined above, whether he / she perceived the conduct to be unwelcome and persistent. A isolated act done without malice would likely not be enough.

As to how you can mitigate but not entirely eliminate incidents in which you can be accused of sexual harassment, I feel my advice in this answer of mine is good. With exception of an extremely narrow selection of jobs, one's gender is hardly relevant in how one conduct's oneself with other colleagues in the workplace. Both men and women rightly expects themselves to not be judged in a belittling / hostile manner based on an inborn characteristic, such as gender. I agree with what @ThursdayGeek wrote - Assuming you treat male colleagues with respect, so should you treat female colleagues the same. Unless you work in one of extremely narrow group of job roles where gender of the employee is relevant, unprofessional / illegal behavior (e.g: sexual harassment) arising out of gender, should be treated the same as if that behavior stemmed from other non - gender but personal characteristics such as race, religion, national origin etc.

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    There might be benefit in giving an example on what "unwelcome and persistent" means: Politely asking a peer coworker on a date would not be construed as sexual harassment. Asking the same coworker repeatedly after they have already turned you down is harassment. Accept their answer the first time and respect their wishes.
    – Seth R
    Jun 14, 2019 at 15:17

pats on the back without consent

I'd struggle to call a bog-standard pat on the back sexual harassment, but as a rule of thumb, don't touch your coworkers without consent.

compliments on appearance

Heavily depends on the nature of the comments and, in my opinion, to what extent they were prompted. Complimenting someone's hair on the day after they get a haircut is going to cause a lot less of an issue than doing so every day.

expressing desire to "date" employees

Yes, this is absolutely inappropriate for the workplace. Not all cases would go so far as to be called harassment, but doing this at all, even jokingly, is not appropriate conduct. The reason for this is that, in the workplace, you are in a position where you're expected to behave rather politely to each other. This can put pressure on the other person to "play along" with your desire, for fear of rejection coming across negatively on them. If you want to date a coworker, discuss it outside of work. (And probably don't do it at all.)

so I can't just call anything and everything that I can claim made me "uncomfortable" sexual harassment!

Do you feel that this happens? Or do you feel that it's something you would take advantage of if you could? Either way, the lack of a nationwide standard for what is and isn't sexual harassment does not allow anyone to cry wolf for whatever reason they please. Touchy subjects like this will always have to be handled on a case-by-case basis. That doesn't undermine the legitimacy of the harassment.

I morally will not tolerate any policies that make it more of an offense if a man does it than if a woman does

I've never heard of an explicit policy that punishes men more than women for the same offense. Women are often more affected by harassment from a man than a man would be affected by the same harassment from a woman, but that's because of complicated societal issues. If a workplace policy explicitly punishes men more for the same behavior, you're right that that shouldn't be tolerated.

Despite what reactionaries would have you believe, you don't have to walk on eggshells around women in order to not be considered a sexual harasser. Don't make unwarranted comments of a sexual nature, don't express desire to date employees, and if someone tells you your behavior is making them uncomfortable, STOP.

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    Yes. The last point: if somebody tells you to back off, back off, right away.
    – O. Jones
    Jun 14, 2019 at 14:26

Standards about sexual harassment in the US are actually very simple. Is the behavior in question something that would be ok in your workplace when the action is towards a man? Are men and women treated equally? Do you ask for consent before touching anyone?

For example: do you pat men on the back and is that commonly done by others in the workplace? If you ask and the person is good with pats on the back? Then treat women the same. Ask before touching both men and women. But if men don't get pats on their backs, hugs, comments about their appearance, doors held open for them, or any other action, then again, treat women the same. If people in your office generally don't ask co-workers for dates, or you're not willing to ask both male and female co-workers for dates, then just don't. If you refer to your male co-workers as 'men', then refer to your female co-workers as 'women', not 'girls'. Keep your language equal too. If your religion forbids you to touch a woman co-worker, so that you can't shake hands, then don't shake hands with men either.

It is always ok to ask for consent first, for both men and women: "Do you need help with that package?" "Would you like me to open the door?" And then, act accordingly. Always ask for consent before pats on the back, hugs, or other touching. If you're in a position of power, don't touch at all, because consent may be given but it's not always clear that it is freely given.

This concept works for more than just men and women. It also works for people of different races, sexual orientation, religions. If you are treating everyone with equal consideration, then you should be fine.

As for national standards, the EEOC gives guidelines - don't discriminate by treating women differently from men:

The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) is responsible for enforcing federal laws that make it illegal to discriminate against a job applicant or an employee because of the person's race, color, religion, sex (including pregnancy, gender identity, and sexual orientation), national origin, age (40 or older), disability or genetic information. It is also illegal to discriminate against a person because the person complained about discrimination, filed a charge of discrimination, or participated in an employment discrimination investigation or lawsuit.

If you are professional and treat your co-workers as co-workers instead of women, men, or any other category, you'll be fine.

  • This is actually not quite that simple. It still depends on individual boundaries involved, which can deviate greatly from gender stereotypes. I think Workplace.SE needs to some extent to improve upon its respect for those who do not fit such stereotypes. Some employees CAN be very sensitive about touch, taking innocently-intended pats on the back as sexually uncomfortable and possibly harassment, and I really, morally think that such "sensitive" boundaries particularly with touch need to be respected for everyone, regardless of gender! Hence my honest question about whether this is SH. Jun 14, 2019 at 6:05
  • I don't think asking a coworker for a date while in the office is OK whatever the sex of the persons concerned, or constellation thereof.
    – RedSonja
    Jun 14, 2019 at 12:24
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    @GuitarHeroAndDancer9001, it is that simple. Yes, some people are uncomfortable being touched. So just don't do it unless you are absolutely certain that person will be ok with it. If you don't know, don't do it. It's that easy.
    – Seth R
    Jun 14, 2019 at 14:36
  • "Asking a coworker to date" is such a vague scenario, it's meaningless without a lot of context. If you're a manager and you've hired a new employee who you have zero relationship with, yes, blindly asking them to date is pretty clearly a bad idea and would almost certainly pass the "reasonable person" test for sexual harassment. But, dating someone who happens to also work for your employer, and with whom you have no workplace relationship involving authority or conflicts of interest, isn't inherently bad.
    – dwizum
    Jun 14, 2019 at 14:36
  • This answer ignores the possibility of the case of the bisexual manager who sexually harasses regardless of gender. For most people, it's a good answer, so I've given it a +1, but it could be improved.
    – Ed Grimm
    Jun 15, 2019 at 1:10

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