Organizational Wellness

How Gender Harassment Impacts Your Workplace — And How to Address It

Aug 2, 2023
Last Updated May 10, 2024

In today's workplaces, creating a safe and inclusive working environment is a top priority. Unfortunately, gender harassment in the workplace continues to be a pervasive issue that can have significant negative impacts on employee wellbeing and productivity.

For people who are impacted by gender harassment, the effects can be severe and long-lasting: they might dread coming to work, they might have higher absenteeism rates, and it could even impact their long-term health. So it’s essential for HR professionals and company leaders to take proactive steps to prevent and address gender harassment in their workplace.

But by implementing effective policies and procedures, conducting training programs, and creating a culture of respect and inclusivity, companies can create a safe and welcoming workplace for everyone. Let’s explore the different types of gender harassment, its effects on employees, and how you can prevent it within your own organization.

What is Gender Harassment?

Gender harassment is a pervasive form of discrimination and a type of workplace harassment that encompasses a broad spectrum of harmful behaviors rooted in gender bias. It is any unwanted conduct related to an individual's gender that has the purpose or effect of violating the dignity of an individual, and of creating an intimidating, hostile, or offensive environment. 

This includes a range of acts, from derogatory comments, inappropriate jokes, offensive images, and targeted bullying, to more overt forms of sexual coercion, sexual assault, or unwelcome sexual advances. The critical factor is that the behavior is unwelcome and perceived as offensive, intimidating, or hostile by the individual subjected to it.

In many countries, including the U.S., gender harassment is regulated by a combination of federal, state, and local laws. In the United States, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 is the primary federal law governing gender harassment, making it illegal to discriminate against someone on the basis of sex in terms of employment. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) enforces these laws and guidelines and provides resources to help organizations maintain a harassment-free workplace. 

Companies must also abide by state laws, which may provide additional protections beyond those at the federal level. For instance, some state laws include provisions for gender identity and sexual orientation, which are not explicitly covered in Title VII, and also may lower the employee threshold for covered employers. Compliance with these laws and regulations is mandatory for all companies to foster a safe, inclusive, and respectful workplace.

Types of Gender Harassment

Gender harassment and sex discrimination can take many forms. The most commonly identified types are:

  • Verbal harassment: This includes derogatory comments, jokes, slurs, or insults centered on a person's gender. This form of harassment can also extend to negative stereotypes or assumptions about abilities, traits, or the expected behavior of a gender group.
  • Physical harassment: Unwanted physical contact, from seemingly minor acts like patting, hugging, or brushing against someone, to more severe forms such as physical assault, all centered around the individual's gender.
  • Visual harassment: Displaying offensive pictures, objects, or graphics that denigrate or stereotype a gender. This could be through electronic means like emails or social media, or physical displays in the workplace.
  • Psychological harassment: Behavior aimed to intimidate, degrade, or humiliate a person based on their gender. It could range from continual derogatory remarks, belittlement, or threats to implicit bias and systemic exclusion.
  • Sexual harassment: Unwanted sexual advances, requests, or other conduct of this nature that interferes with the target's performance, or otherwise creates a hostile working environment for them.
  • Online harassment: Use of digital platforms to humiliate, intimidate, or harass a person based on their gender. This could involve cyberbullying, trolling, posting offensive content, or sending harassing emails or messages.
  • Quid pro quo harassment: This type of harassment occurs when employment decisions or treatment in the workplace are based on trading favors or putting up with behaviors and misconduct. This "this for that" harassment often involves someone in a position of power exploiting their authority.
  • Third-party harassment: Harassment from individuals who are not employees but have relationships with the organization, like customers, vendors, or visitors. Employers can also be held liable for failing to address third-party harassment incidents.

Understanding these forms of gender harassment is the first step toward identifying and combating such harassing behaviors in the workplace.

Effects of Gender and Sexual Harassment in the Workplace

Gender and sexual harassment in the workplace can have severe and far-reaching impacts, not just on the individuals directly affected, but also on the overall health and productivity of an organization. These effects can manifest in various ways:

Mental Health Issues

Harassment can trigger severe emotional and psychological distress, contributing to conditions like anxiety and depression. This can have an impact on an employee’s long-term health outlook as well.

Lower Job Satisfaction

hostile work environment can significantly decrease job satisfaction. When employees feel uncomfortable or unsafe, they are less likely to find fulfillment in their work, leading to diminished morale and motivation.

Higher Absenteeism

Victims of harassment might avoid the workplace to escape their harasser, resulting in more frequent absences and sick leaves. This reduced presence can lead to significant losses in productivity.

Performance Declines

Harassment can negatively affect a victim's concentration and performance. The ongoing stress and anxiety often associated with harassment can result in decreased productivity and quality of work.

Increased Turnover

Employees subjected to gender harassment are sometimes more likely to leave their jobs, leading to higher turnover rates. This not only causes you to lose valuable employees but also increases the costs associated with hiring and training new employees.

Damage to Company Reputation

Instances of harassment can quickly become public, and social media can spread these stories faster than ever, doing harm to a company's reputation if it’s not a safe place to work. A poor employer brand can affect customer relationships and make it harder to attract top talent.

Legal Consequences

Companies that fail to prevent or appropriately address gender harassment and protect their employees can face legal penalties, including fines, damages, and lawsuits.

Understanding the profound impacts of gender harassment underscores the urgent need for effective policies and interventions to create a safe, respectful, and inclusive workplace environment.

How to Prevent and Address Gender Harassment

Creating a gender-harassment-free work environment is not just a legal requirement, but also a key driver of a healthy, productive, and inclusive workplace culture. 

These five steps can help HR and company leaders make great strides toward preventing and addressing gender harassment:

  1. Establish clear policies: Develop and implement a comprehensive policy against gender harassment that outlines what constitutes harassment, the process for reporting incidents, how investigations will be conducted, and the consequences for harassers. This policy should be communicated to all employees and should be easily accessible.
  2. Create safe reporting mechanisms: You can establish multiple, confidential channels so that employees can comfortably report harassment, including an anonymous option. Assure employees that retaliation for reporting harassment or participating in an investigation is strictly prohibited and will be severely penalized.
  3. Provide regular training: Conducting regular, mandatory training sessions on gender harassment helps employees stay aware of which behaviors are unacceptable — and how to recognize them. Training should cover the company's policy, the types of behavior that constitute harassment, and the process for reporting and addressing incidents. Special training should also be provided to managers and HR staff on how to handle reports of harassment.
  4. Foster an inclusive culture: Promote a culture of diversity and inclusion, where respect for all individuals, regardless of their gender, is a core value. This can involve, among other things, ensuring fair hiring practices, providing equal opportunities for career advancement, and facilitating open conversations about gender and diversity.
  5. Prompt investigation and action: It’s important to swiftly investigate all reports of gender harassment in a thorough, impartial, and confidential manner. If harassment is found to have occurred, follow your policies to take immediate and appropriate corrective action, including disciplinary actions against the harasser, including termination if warranted.

Help Employees Feel Supported With a Healthy Environment

Preventing gender harassment in the workplace is a crucial component of supporting employees' wellbeing and creating a safe, inclusive work environment. By taking proactive steps to prevent and address gender-based harassment, you can help promote psychological safety for your team and support their overall wellbeing.

You can also take steps to build on this foundation by introducing a comprehensive wellness program that supports your employees' physical, emotional, and mental wellbeing needs. A tailored wellness program can provide employees with access to resources and support that align with their individual health and wellbeing journeys. For example, some employees may benefit from stress management programs or mental health resources, while others may be looking to sign up for a fitness membership or learn about healthy eating options.

Supporting your employees' holistic wellbeing helps create a workplace culture that values and prioritizes health and wellbeing. Learn more about how you can build up support for your employees by speaking to one of our Wellbeing Specialists!

Company healthcare costs drop by up to 35% with Wellhub! (* Based on proprietary research comparing healthcare costs of active Wellhub users to non-users.) Talk to a Wellbeing Specialist to see how we can help reduce your healthcare spending!



Wellhub Editorial Team

The Wellhub Editorial Team empowers HR leaders to support worker wellbeing. Our original research, trend analyses, and helpful how-tos provide the tools they need to improve workforce wellness in today's fast-shifting professional landscape.


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