The School Leader’s Guide to Sexual Harassment

James Stovall

Almost every day we hear another report about a high-profile figure accused of sexual harassment by a subordinate or coworker. But sexual harassment isn’t limited to politics or Hollywood. It happens every day in regular organizations, just like your school.

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In a school environment, your team will interact with one another daily. They’ll become familiar, banter, and share their lives. They’ll meet for drinks after work and even date one another romantically. In this type of environment, it’s important that managers know how to prevent sexual harassment and respond to complaints.

It’s difficult to calculate how often sexual harassment in the workplace occurs, but we know it’s frighteningly common. According to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), “Anywhere from 25% to 85% of women report having experienced sexual harassment in the workplace.”

That’s a wide gap, but even if we look at those numbers conservatively, one in four women have been sexually harassed at work. That’s a lot.

The majority of harassment cases are filed by women, but men suffer sexual harassment too. In 2015, 17.1% of sexual harassment claims were filed with the EEOC by men.

Many schools all over the country fail to take sexual harassment seriously, opening themselves up to lawsuits, poor morale, and high employee turnover. Even though it’s common, sexual harassment is routinely misunderstood by school employees, managers, and school leaders.

Uh, oh! Has one of your staff complained they’ve been sexually harassed? Download this free guide to learn how to respond to the complaint.

What is Sexual Harassment?

Sexual harassment is a type of sex discrimination that violates Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Many state and local governments have additional anti-sexual harassment laws and regulations.


According to the EEOC, sexual harassment is “Unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature constitutes sexual harassment when submission to or rejection of this conduct explicitly or implicitly affects an individual’s employment, unreasonably interferes with an individual’s work performance or creates an intimidating, hostile or offensive work environment.”

“That can include unwelcome advances or it can include gender-based harassment, which might be comments that are demeaning to a particular gender,” said Jenny Yang, Chair of the EEOC.

There are two types of sexual harassment: Quid pro quo and hostile work environment.

Quid Pro Quo Sexual Harassment

Quid pro quo is the most easily recognized type of workplace sexual harassment. It’s the type of harassment that’s dominated the news recently.

In this form of sexual harassment, a workplace superior (boss, manager, supervisor, executive, or anyone with power of influence) demands sexual favors in exchange for a job benefit.

Someone in power might offer a raise, promotion, special shifts, bonuses, or other perks for sexual favors. The victim may feel like he/she will lose opportunities or the job itself if they don’t comply.

It’s important to note that the quid pro quo offer doesn’t have to be explicit. It’s possible for a harasser to make it clear through gestures, innuendo, vague statements, and body language that the employee’s benefit depends on their compliance. In only takes one instance (one question, one threat, or one offer) of an inappropriate sexual behavior linked to a job benefit to be considered quid pro quo sexual harassment.

Example: Jim, the school principal, offers to appoint Amanda, a teacher, as the coach of the basketball team in exchange for sexual favors.

Example: Cynthia, the school’s vice principal, requests sexual favors from Hank, the school’s custodian, in exchange for an extra vacation day.

Example: Mark, the school’s business manager, implies to Jenny that she might receive a poor performance review if she doesn’t date him.

Hostile Work Environment Sexual Harassment

Hostile work environment sexual harassment is less clear than quid pro quo, but it’s just as painful for victims.

A hostile environment is a workplace filled with unwelcome, distracting, and inappropriate sexual behavior that affects employees’ performance and employment. Victims deal with sexual comments and advances, quid pro quo-like requests or propositions, inappropriate touching, etc.

In a hostile work environment, inappropriate sexual behavior doesn’t have to target anyone in particular. Lewd jokes, requests for dates, obscene materials, sexual gestures, leering, and anything sexual in nature that makes people uncomfortable is considered hostile.

Unlike quid pro quo sexual harassment, hostile work environment sexual harassment must be pervasive. One isolated instance of inappropriate behavior isn’t enough to qualify as sexual harassment.

It’s tougher to prove hostile work environment harassment than quid pro quo harassment because it requires ongoing evidence. As the employer, you are partially responsible for a hostile work environment if you don’t take decisive steps to stop inappropriate behavior.

Example: Janine, the math teacher, frequently and inappropriately rubs the shoulders of male teachers in the teacher’s lounge.

Example: Michael, the front office assistant, regularly emails lewd jokes to his coworkers.

Here are a few more points about sexual harassment from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission:

  • Victims and harassers can be men or women. The victim does not have to be the opposite sex of the harasser.
  • The victim doesn’t have to be the person directly harassed, just anyone who is affected by the inappropriate conduct.
  • The harasser can be the victim’s superior at the school, an agent of the employer (like a per diem substitute), a superior in another department/area, or a coworker.
  • The harasser’s conduct must be unwelcome. (The victim cannot invite the conduct and then claim sexual harassment later.)
  • The victim does not need to suffer economic injury.

Finally, it’s important to note that victims are not required to complain about sexual harassment in the moment to the harasser or report it immediately to their supervisor. Take sexual complaints seriously, no matter when you hear them.

Preventing Sexual Harassment in Your School

Your goal is to create a work environment and culture that doesn’t tolerate sexual harassment of any kind. Even if you don’t have an HR specialist on staff, it’s critical to have an HR support resource available to help you design policies that create a safe work environment.

The first step to preventing sexual harassment in your school is to develop a written policy. Your employee handbook should include a policy that defines sexual harassment and explains why it won’t be tolerated. Express that you’ll take all allegations seriously, even firing the harasser if necessary.

Establish a system for submitting complaints, as well. Staff should know who to speak to about the harassment and what steps you will take to resolve the issue.

Make sure your policy complies with federal, state, and local laws. To protect yourself from liability, it’s smart to make your policy stricter than the law requires. This also signals to employees that you’re committed to creating a safe and healthy work environment for their sake.

Once your policy is in place, coach your employees to follow it. Have them acknowledge that they received and understand the policy by signing it. Explain your policy to new employees during the onboarding phase, employee promoted to managerial roles, and whenever your policy or laws are updated.

In many states, including New York, there is no specific sexual harassment training required, but it’s smart to train your employees anyway to prevent an incident. That should include teaching your team how to identify and report sexual harassment, how to behave themselves in the workplace and on social media, and everyone’s roles and responsibilities.

If you need help training your staff to avoid sexually harassing conduct, contact us.

Responding to Sexual Harassment Complaints

Once your sexual harassment policy is in place and your team has been trained, it’s important to enforce the policy consistently and fairly. All employees, regardless of station or seniority, should be held equally accountable under the policy.

When an employee first speaks to you about sexual harassment, take their complaint seriously. If you delay, you might be found liable for allowing a hostile work environment. Plus, you’ll have a hard time retaining employees if they don’t feel you address their complaints promptly.

Conducting a sexual harassment investigation and determining corrective actions are complex topics that require a careful understanding of federal and state laws. If you don’t have a qualified HR specialist or employment attorney on site to handle the investigation, contact us about how we can provide critical HR support.

After the investigation, implement whatever corrective actions are necessary. In most cases, a sit-down conversation between the victim and the harasser is enough to settle a sexual harassment dispute. In other cases, you may have to discipline, reassign, or terminate the harasser’s employment.

Even if the sexual harassment claim can be resolved in the workplace, every victim has the right to begin criminal proceedings. As the employer, you may not impede or obscure a criminal investigation. If a court decides you neglected steps to create a safe work environment, failed to take sexual harassment claims seriously, or even contributed to the environment, they could force you to compensate a victim in wages and benefits lost due to the harassment, emotional distress, and punitive damages.

It’s important to know how to respond to sexual harassment claims before you get one. Download this free resource to learn more.

Taking Sexual Harassment Seriously

Sexual harassment isn’t taken seriously in many workplaces all over the country, including schools. It’s common to hear people dismiss victims and make excuses for the harassers. This causes victims to keep quiet until they find employment elsewhere or file a lawsuit.

A reasonable, robust sexual harassment policy signals to your employees that you take their safety and comfort at work seriously. It shows them that you care more about their productivity; you care about their well-being, too. This boosts their morale, raises employee retention, and improves the overall health of the school.

At Little Bird HR, we help charter schools, private schools, and preschools manage a myriad of human resource functions, including sexual harassment policies. Contact us for help.