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Witness to Sexual Harassment in the Workplace

Witness to Sexual Harassment in the Workplace

Witnessing sexual harassment in your workplace is jarring and uncomfortable. Although you may not be directly involved, you may still feel driven to say something, or unsure as to what you could do about the situation.


FEHA (California Fair Employment and Housing Act) and Title VII (of the Civil Rights Act) both forbid sexual harassment, and define it in very similar language:


“It is unlawful to harass a person [with whom the harasser has a professional relationship] because of that person’s sex. Harassment can include “sexual harassment” or unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical harassment of a sexual nature.


Harassment does not have to be of a sexual nature, however, and can include offensive remarks about a person’s sex. For example, it is illegal to harass a woman by making offensive comments about women in general.”


Inappropriate behaviors and language that constitute sexual harassment are varied and very situational. Note that the sexual identity or “job title” of either party does not matter. A harasser can be a man or a woman; a victim can be a customer or a bystander.

Common questions may include:

Does what I witnessed “count” as sexual harassment?

Behavior is generally considered illegal if it is severe or pervasive, meaning that it is not an isolated incident or is not an offhanded, simple joke. Indicators that sexual harassment has occurred include:

      • If you feel that a hostile or offensive work environment has been created
      • If the harasser has requested a “quid pro quo” (an exchange between them and the victim, like offering a raise for sexual favors)
      • If the victim has been fired, demoted, told that they will get a bad performance review, or threatened with any of these actions

However, oftentimes situations are not that clearcut. We encourage you to speak with an attorney further about your specific situation.

Why does it matter if I saw it, rather than was a direct victim of it?

Everyone is harmed by sexual harassment in their workplace and, although you may not be who the behavior or language was directed at, you may still be entitled to legal relief. Working in a hostile or toxic work environment should not have to be part of your day to day life.

What can or should I do?

Note that speaking with an attorney first is likely a good idea. They may be able to advise you on any complaint you submit, to make it as effective as possible.

Who do I go to?

If your company has procedures in place to report sexual harassment, do so. The company needs to be made aware that something has occurred and be given the opportunity to correct the situation.

    • If they do not have reporting procedures, try to speak with someone higher up in your organization that you trust, or with human resources.
    • Or, you can file a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and/or California’s Department of Fair Employment and Housing.

What do I say?

    • Provide as much information as possible about what happened. The “who, what, when, and where” can go a long way in setting up your employer or the state departments listed above to conduct a thorough investigation.


Can my company retaliate against me?

No, to do so would be illegal.

I don’t think I’m comfortable reporting, what else can I do?

If you are not confident or comfortable with reporting, you can always:

  • Interject when something is happening – Simply saying “stop” or anything that relays you do not condone the person’s behavior or language can sometimes be enough!


  • Distract from the behavior or language – Try to think creatively about what could deescalate the situation.


  • Find an ally – If there’s someone that’s available to help you in the situation, whether it be a supervisor or a friend of the harasser, reach out to them.


  • Talk to the parties afterwards:
    • If you choose to speak with the harasser, remember that it’s important for you to remain calm and direct.
    • If you choose to speak with the victim, remember to remain empathetic and not push them into any particular choice. However, letting them know that they have support and a witness available may assist them in deciding their course of action.