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How to Recognize and Respond to Sexual Harrassment in the Workplace


Sexual harassment is a major problem in all workplaces.  Harassers could be your co-workers, managers, supervisors, physicians, patients, and/or visitors. 

Two definitions of sexual harassment:

Quid pro quo – “Unwelcome sexual advances, request for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature constitute harassment when a submission to or rejection of such conduct is used as the basis for employment decisions (Gardner & Johnson, 2001).

Hostile Work Environment – Unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature that has the purpose or effect of unreasonably interfering with an individual’s work performance or creating an intimidating, hostile, or offensive working environment (Gardner & Johnson, 2001).”


  • Sexually oriented comments about someone’s body, appearance, and/or lifestyle
  • Offensive behavior such as leering, ridicule, or innuendo
  • Deliberate unwanted physical contact


Sexual harassment in the workplace is an unlawful exercise of power.  Research shows that harassers choose their targets systematically.  The harassers choose their victims to exert their need to have power and control over someone else.  Harassers often believe themselves empowered due to size, gender, and societal or work related authority. Research identifies the dominance roles of big/small, male/female, doctor/nurse, and supervisor/worker as the frequent dynamic in sexual harassment. 


  • Recognize sexual harassment for what it is.
  • Keep documentation; a diary with dates, incidents, witnesses, and the who, what, where.
  • Report the harassment to a supervisor, or manager.
  • Seek support from co-workers.  If this is not possible because of hostility in the workplace, confide in your friends and family. 
  • Some authors suggest that you confront the harasser.  Do not attempt this alone.  For your safety it is essential to have someone you trust with you. 
  • For additional help contact your state Division of Human Rights or the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).

Fact Sheet prepared by Nicole Crane, student, University Massachusetts Boston in cooperation with the MNA Congress on Health and Safety -2009


Employees in healthcare settings are entitled to a safe, harassment-free workplace. 

  • Education is essential for prevention.
  • All employees should be required to participate in initial and annual educational programs.
  • The sexual harassment policy should be understood by all employees and the policy should be publicly displayed—with clear instructions on how to file a complaint.


Managers and supervisors should be instructed on how to address harassment and not be judgmental of the victim.  They should be committed to helping stop the harassment. If the sexual harassment does not stop through the organizations internal system, an employee has the private right to take legal action under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which can be completed with the assistance of an attorney.


Gardner, S. & Johnson, P.R.  Sexual Harassment in Healthcare: Strategies for employers. Hospital Topics, 5-11, 2001.

New York State Nurses Association.  Position Statement: Sexual Harassment in the Workplace. www.nysna.orq/practice/positions/position35.htm

U.S. Equal Employment Opportunities Commission –

This Fact Sheet on Sexual Harassment was developed by Nicole Crane, a student at UMass Boston and an intern in the Health and Safety Division last year. This work was prepared in collaboration with the members of the Congress on Health and Safety and the Workplace Violence and Abuse Prevention Task Force. Nicole Crane is the daughter of MNA member Ellen Smith RN.

Ellen Smith, UMass Medical Center, University in 6ICU, MNA Board of Directors, vice chair of Regional Council 2, grievance chair at and negotiating team UMass.

Permission granted to reprint with acknowledgement- Massachusetts Nurses Association 04/09

NC 11/30/09