Poll: Americans have very different definitions of sexual harassment at work

Following the allegations of sexual harassment and assault from Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein, the topic of workplace harassment has jumped into mainstream conversation, prompting victims to come forward and men in power to lose their jobs as a result. But just because many of us are talking about sexual harassment now doesn’t mean that we are talking about the same thing.

According to a new poll from Reuters/Ipsos, Americans hold startling differences of opinion about what exactly constitutes sexual harassment.

Broad agreement that ‘intentional groping’ is bad, differences about ‘nonconsensual hugging’

In the Reuters/Ipsos poll of 3,000 adult Americans this December, the majority of respondents agreed that intentional groping or kissing “without your consent” was sexual harassment.

But Americans were sharply divided as to whether other forms of nonconsensual touch should cause a human resources complaint. Forty four percent of respondents said that hugging someone without their consent was sexual harassment, but forty percent said it was not. This finding suggests that nearly half of us are going to work thinking that unwanted, forced hugs could be in the realm of appropriate workplace behavior.

“Dirty jokes” and “unwanted compliments about your appearance” were also seen as murky areas of workplace harassment for almost half of participants, with 44% of adults saying that dirty jokes weren’t a form of sexual harassment and 47% saying that your coworker’s unwanted commentary about your body didn’t necessarily equal sexual harassment.

Gender, race, and generational differences

The definition of harassment also varied across gender, race, and generational lines. Nineteen percent of men said that touching someone intentionally without their consent was not sexual harassment; only 11% of women said the same.

While more than half of people of color agreed that an unwanted hug was sexual harassment, only 39% of white people reported the same sentiment.

Attitudes about harassment also shifted across generations. Sending a pornographic picture to someone without their consent was overwhelmingly considered sexual harassment by Baby Boomers and Gen-Xers, while millennials were the demographic least likely to call it sexual harassment.

What employers need to do

This research shows us that our coworkers may hold widely differing beliefs about appropriate workplace behavior. Is an unwanted hug actually sexual harassment? The law is broad here. The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which federally enforces workplace discrimination, explicitly defines sexual harassment as “unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical harassment of a sexual nature.”

When employees differ and laws lack clarity, it’s up to employers be the referee with explicit guidelines and standards about how employees can interact with one another.

Suzanne Goldberg, director of the Center for Gender and Sexuality Law at Columbia Law School told Reuters that “the onus is on employers” to set the tone “even if the co-workers don’t object or go to management to complain.”

To make the workplace a safe environment for every employee, in other words, employers need to be proactive with over-communicating what employees can and cannot do.