Workplace Harassment Outside of Office Hours or Office Buildings

Young Chinese woman making a "stop" gesture to the camera.

Photo Credit: Kateryna Onyshchuk

When the #MeToo movement became viral, it started a lot of conversations about inappropriate and illegal sexual behavior in the workplace. This led to more laws and businesses revitalizing efforts to eliminate workplace sexual harassment to create safe and equitable work environments. However, it is crucial to understand that workplace sexual harassment extends outside the barriers of an office building or working hours. In this blog, we will be discussing how workplace sexual harassment can occur outside office hours and stress how employers should be proactive in addressing that issue.

A hostile work environment is, “a workplace where there are serious instances of harassment and discrimination against protected characteristics such as race, color, religion, sex and pregnancy, national origin, age (40 or older), disability or genetic information.” Regarding workplace sexual harassment, hostile work environments can occur when colleagues exhibit any of the following behaviors:

-Unwanted physical contact such as patting, touching, or hugging (particularly if these are repeated behaviors)

-Inappropriate innuendo or jokes of a sexual nature

-Sexually crude gestures

-Displaying pictures or objects that are sexually suggestive

-Threats or intimidation to perform a sexual act

-Unwanted and unexpected attention, visits, or calls from a colleague

For harassment to be considered workplace sexual harassment, there must be some connection between the individuals involved through work. Workplace sexual harassment is not limited to conduct just between employees, but also between employees and those they interact with as part of their job duties. This means that employers have a duty to respond to and prevent harassment between employees, vendors, contractors, board members, customers, and more. Settings for workplace sexual harassment outside of regular office hours can include but are not limited to business trips, fundraisers, work parties, business meals, during a commute, and interactions when arriving or leaving work (which can happen in employee parking lots). Some cases include perpetrators stalking their colleagues to their homes or other places they frequent. Because the target of harassment and the person harassing the other are connected through their work, all these settings and circumstances would fall under the workplace sexual harassment umbrella.

As our digital presence increases, so does the potential for online workplace sexual harassment. Not all speech is protected, and virtual sexual harassment is something that must not be tolerated by any employer, regardless of the time of posting or where it is posted. Directly cyberbullying a colleague, non-consensual sexting, sharing other types of unwanted sexual imagery, “flirty” comments or direct messages on social media or other messaging platforms, or publicly posting derogatory comments about an employee would also contribute to a hostile work environment, fall under workplace sexual harassment, and need to be taken seriously by an employer.

Workplace sexual harassment is all too common. The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s (EEOC) Select Task Force on the Study of Harassment in the Workplace uncovered that, “Sixty percent of women say they have experienced unwanted sexual attention, sexual coercion, sexually crude conduct, or sexist comments in the workplace.” This behavior, over the course of a lifetime, can manifest in a variety of physical and psychological consequences ranging from anxiety to changes in weight, lack of sleep, depression, stress, headaches, and even Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Furthermore, it adds real consequences to career paths, with one study finding that “one in seven women sought a new job assignment, changed jobs, or quit a job due to the abuse, as did one in 17 men.” These career changes are a byproduct of a belief held by the victims that their claims won’t be taken seriously. The previously mentioned EEOC study found that, “Over 85 percent of people who experience sexual harassment never file a formal legal charge, and approximately 70 percent of employees never even complain internally.”

The National Sexual Violence Resource Center resource “Ending Sexual Assault and Harassment in the Workplace” stresses that the fallout of workplace sexual harassment extends beyond its primary target. For fellow colleagues of the victim and other witnesses to the harassment, they “can also suffer mental and physical harm and employee morale can decrease.” Businesses at large “can face financial costs associated with harassment complaints in addition to decreased employee productivity, increased employee turnover rate, and reputational harm.” This is why it is critically important for employers to use a culture change approach to combat sexual harassment in the workplace, instead of limiting their response to only the individuals directly involved in the harassing behaviors.

Employers have the potential and responsibility to change their workplace’s culture to promote safe, equitable, respectful environments. One way to do this is by improving safety policies and procedures to counter the issue of workplace sexual harassment. If you’re unsure where to start, RALIANCE would be more than happy to collaborate with your business to discuss how you can promote a culture of safety and equity at all hours of the day for your employees, while also engaging in discussion about what sort of discipline or accountability measures might be taken for employees who engage in this type of inappropriate conduct.

RALIANCE is a trusted adviser for organizations committed to building cultures that are safe, equitable, and respectful. RALIANCE offers unparalleled expertise in serving survivors of sexual harassment, misconduct, and abuse which drives our mission to help organizations across sectors create inclusive environments for all. For more information, please visit


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