How to Avoid Being Accused of Sexual Harassment

Even if you believe that you treat all of your co-workers with respect, we currently have an epidemic of sexual harassment in the American workplace that requires heightened awareness, advanced skills for working with the opposite sex, and an abundance of caution.

“I would advise tech professionals to be extra careful about what they say or do to avoid being accused of sexual harassment in the post-Weinstein climate,” advised Kelly Armstrong, senior partner with The Armstrong Law Firm.

According to a recent study by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, sexual harassment is pervasive. Four in ten women report enduring unwanted advances in a work environment (Uber is a prime example of a workplace gone awry in this regard), which could include everything from a come-on to a gendered insult to sexual assault.

Everyone in America knows that ignorance of the law is no excuse (in case you need a refresher on sexual harassment, here is a brief overview). But just to be sure, here are some prudent ways to avoid being accused of sexual harassment and potentially damaging your career.

Don’t Mix Your Personal and Professional Lives

Dating a subordinate is not only asking for trouble—most companies prohibit the practice outright. But even if your company allows fraternization between “equal level” employees, dating a co-worker probably isn’t a good idea. Things could get dicey if you break up, and most people flirt to test the waters—which could be construed as an unwanted advance.

“Keep things purely professional,” Armstrong recommended. “Avoid acting in a way that suggests that you might be attracted to a subordinate or co-worker.”

Recognize and Tame Subconscious Bias

Sexual harassment isn’t limited to unwanted or annoying advances, explained Patti Perez, an expert on harassment and VP of workplace strategy for Emtrain. Sometimes, people commit sexual harassment without even knowing it.

For instance, calling a female colleague “honey,” “babe” or another pet name can lead to trouble. So can making negative comments about a co-worker’s gender, especially when describing their technical abilities or work product. Staring in a lustful way at an attractive co-worker or making a facial expression is also taboo.

In addition, don’t remark about a co-worker’s appearance or figure to your teammates, or brag about your social life or dating habits. Demeaning others can create a hostile environment, make your co-workers uncomfortable and damage your reputation.

“People who are accused of sexual harassment often act in a way that is boorish or immature,” Perez noted. “Research shows that people who act like a stereotypical frat boy in the workplace don’t get much leeway if they accidently say the wrong thing or curse.”

To avoid being accused of sexual harassment, treat everyone equally and avoid comments that refer to age, appearance or gender.

Mind your P’s and Q’s at Company Events

Armstrong says that, given the current environment, tech pros should steer clear of team-building events, software release celebrations and after-work happy hours.

Of course, avoiding company events altogether can damage your career, as well. As a rule of thumb, limit your alcohol intake, don’t stay too long, and only attend company-sponsored activities, meet-ups or business lunches. To avoid sending mixed messages, limit your physical contact in the workplace to a professional handshake.

Compliment Work, Not Physical Appearance

Recognizing your co-workers for good work is definitely okay, but complimenting a co-worker’s physical appearance, especially if it’s done in a suggestive way, could be construed as sexual harassment. If you’re building a bond with teammates, you’re better off discussing the latest open-source tool, the local sports team, or a new restaurant.

Learning how to work with co-workers without risking a sexual-harassment accusation doesn’t have to be hard. As Perez noted: “It just requires emotional intelligence and new and better ways of expressing yourself.”


50 Responses to “How to Avoid Being Accused of Sexual Harassment”

  1. This is just insanity. Why do we need to avoid team building events simply because the world is so uptight?
    Btw there is no unconscious bias, unless you speak in your sleep. It shoukd subconscious bias.

  2. “Four in ten women report enduring unwanted advances in a work environment…..”
    Are you talking about Hollyweird and Congress Leslie? If some male schmuck tries anything in today’s corporation with its hordes of feminists in HR, he’s gone in a heartbeat. Your “stat” is fake news.

  3. Unconscious has two meanings. There is such thing as an Unconscious mind, and it’s not the same thing as sleeping or simply being unconscious. Read about psychology, and you’ll figure it out. I’m actually surprised the figure is as low as 4 out of 10. Tons of “innocent” sexist remark, jokes, and physical contact goes unreported.
    Source: I’m a woman in tech.

  4. Gabriel Archer

    Sexual harassment is a catch 22 in the work place. I get called honey all the time at work by women and nobody says a thing. If I do it, HR will be all me in a heartbeat.

    Right now it seems like only men are capable of doing it and if women do it, well that’s OK.

  5. Michael C

    The stats are real and I have been thru it. Some years back I was at a company function and temp secretary overheard a phone conversation between my then wife and myself (we were in the middle of a divorce). She filed a sexual harassment suit against me. After that failed, she filed it against me, the company and the other 33 salesmen that worked there. It took me an attorney and a lot of money to get this thing kicked out of court and to go away. It is all in what you say, how you say it and to whom you say it to. People perceive you are saying as if it is being directed to them. My advice is to walk a straight and narrow path as it could save your job and career.

  6. How about this dumb men. Just be professional, you know go to work; do your job, then go home to your wifey and kids…
    But that’s to simple. Men are complete dumbasses because women have to write articles like this yet they still don’t get it.
    I also love how the men who commit on this article are calling the article stupid. No your species is stupid. Us women have to treat you like the child you all are. smh and wtf is wrong with men.

  7. How about this dumb men. Just be professional, you know go to work; do your job, then go home to your wifey and kids…
    But that’s to simple. Men are complete dumbasses because women have to write articles like this yet they still don’t get it.
    I also love how the men who commit on this article are calling the article stupid. Us women have to treat you like the child you all are. smh and wtf is wrong with men.

    • Wow, really “lady”. Your ignorant! Your statement “No your species is stupid. Us women have to treat you like the child you all are. smh and wtf is wrong with men.”
      Gender isn’t a species fool! You are the same species! If you can’t figure that out then how can anyone take you seriously?Your comments seem to be aimed at all men rather than the select few who are actually guilty of it. That’s pathetic and grounds for you to have to visit HR for a reprimand yourself!!
      As for the topic I have witnessed harassment from BOTH genders. Non of it is acceptable!
      Note to the author – harassment isn’t happening more frequently, it’s just being reported more often which is a positive move to address it!

  8. M. Edwards

    This is another way to separate people, they separate by inviting millions of immigrants that create problems (not only the ones required, which are mostly fine), they separate by ideologies (left-right, up-down, name it), and also they separate by gender (women vs men). Well done, elites, paving the way to native population reduction in western countries at the expenses of steadily growth of alien cultures with medieval ages values. This happens in USA, in Europe, in Australia and in any single country regarded as western.

    On the topic, still there are some guys trying to leep on the pull at work, but this is an exceptional problem, the problem is what is pointed in the article: you might behave normal but due to the politically corect feminazism, you might end up charged for rape when just being normal…

  9. Russ D'Arensbourg

    It’s really not that difficult. I’ve worked in IT for over 10 years, and in sales 10 years before that. I’ve never had a problem with sexual impropriety.
    If you are attracted to someone at work, ask them out. Don’t show them some part of your anatomy, or corner them in the mail room. Just say, hey, do you want to get drinks sometime after work, just us two? This is direct and to the point. It’s not sexual harassment. It’s a request for social contact outside of work.
    Your co-worker can say no. They can agree, and keep it to drinking buddies, or go farther. Bit this is how adults behave.
    Otherwise, treat the men and women at your job as if they were siblings. You wouldn’t grab your sisters behind would you?

  10. Male Human

    For those of us who have the audacity to commit the heinous crime of working while male, the modern workplace has become a hostile environment.

    If you are male, a single false accusation and destroy your career, and your life. No proof required. It is guilty until proven innocent.

    Even if you can prove your innocence. because you are male, your guilt will continue to be assumed.

    It will forever be a stain that you cannot wash away, and it will follow you around; reducing your earning capacity; for the rest of your life.

    It doesn’t matter that “not all women are like that,” because it takes only one unscrupulous women, who is willing to make a false accusation (for whatever the reason), to destroy your career, and probably your life.

    I have seen enough men, who have had their careers and lives permanently damaged by verifiability false accusations of sexual misconduct to know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that it is not enough to simply act politely and professionally. What I say here, is not hyperbole.

    …and with the modern socio-political narrative that says “women are wonderful, and men are worthless,” as a male, your word, and your suffering mean less than nothing.

    There is no foolproof way to avoid the accusation, but you can minimize your risk of it, by limiting your contact with female co-workers, avoiding discussions about your personal life, and strictly limiting conversion to work only topics..

    In essence, do not date or have relationships with co-workers, do not “flirt,” with them, and never be alone with a female co-worker.

    If you cannot avoid being alone with a member of the opposite sex, always be recording, so you have proof of your innocence.

    If you are male, and you can so,it is in your best interests to avoid the corporate work environment like the plague.

    If you can, work telecommute only positions, or work freelance.

    Even then, though, you should limit contact with people you deal with professionally, when they are members of the opposite sex.

  11. Laura Keating

    Take a look at what men are accused of. Pressuring women (or men) to have sex, boorish obscene behavior, making crude comments or displaying crude images.

    Is it really that hard to just not do that? I’m the mother of 3 adult boys and have no worries that they will ever be the subject of sexual harassment claims. They aren’t perfect, but they are boors.

    40 years in IT, and I’ve seen few boors and no false accusations. Just don’t be a jerk.

    • If it were only that simple, it would be easy. I completely agree with you that men should treat women with respect and dignity, just as women should treat men the same. Neither men or women should make any sexual advances in the work place or crude comments. But, unfortunately I don’t think it’s that simple anymore. I’m afraid we are now heading toward a culture (or we’re already there), where almost anything can be viewed as sexual harassment, even a casual, friendly smile taken the wrong way. I suppose the best way to avoid being accused is just to be a bit rude and avoid eye contact all together. The way things are now, I’m even afraid to give a woman a sincere compliment anymore, and I’m afraid we’re living in a society now where if you get angry with someone or don’t like someone, just accuse them of improper sexual behavior 10, 15, 20 years ago and get them fired and ruin their reputation. It’s a scary new world.

  12. Unfortunately, the only way to protect yourself from false charges of sexual harassment is to not hire women. Don’t laugh. The risk of being accused is just too great. Doing everything the article suggests doesn’t protect you against false accusations and you will NEVER be able to disprove them. Your career will be destroyed without recourse. Otherwise I’d follow Billy Graham’s advice: Don’t ever be alone with a woman and always have the office door open .if you MUST be alone with one.

  13. politically incorrect redneck

    Simple: Don’t hire women in the first place.They are usually looking for easy money. Most will wear provocative clothing in the workplace to entice remarks. They know what they’re doing.Sexual attraction is natural. Don’t try to make it illegal.

    • lol In my experience women work twice as hard as men. If you don’t hire women, who will be there to hold your hand and walk you through your job on a daily basis? My company would crumble without the women that keep it going. The men that work here are more like man children that have everything handed to them on a silver platter.

      • Is that before or after the gossiping? Women’s lib has backfired gentleman. Gone are the days of working 20 years for a company and taking care of the family, gone are marriages that last. We have pretty much flipped roles. Men are now feminized, and apologetic to their wives and women in general. If not, there are consequences. Divorce, loss of job, you name it.

      • John Address

        This is wishful thinking. Men were just fine working the mines, the roads, the wars and long before women decided they wanted phalluses.
        Im MY experience the men always end up doing the heavy lifting while the women stand aside arms akimbo.

  14. Reasonable Enough

    Instead of “How to Avoid Being Accused of Sexual Harassment”, why not “How to Not Sexually Harass people”? Treat women like equal peers, with respect, don’t treat them like objects, and don’t touch them because there’s absolutely no reason to. The “false accusations” narrative is unwarranted and unnecessarily misdirects the discussion to an issue that is not at all widespread. Just be a decent human. Simple as that.

    • Men are scared they will be accused by some woman of sexual harassment??
      If you think that’s scary, try going somewhere while numerous men stop you, honk, whistle, holler, extend invites, offer rides, etc. It happens at work, at home, in public, on the street, any where! If I ignore them, then, I am a “BITCH!”
      It scares the hell out of me! It is humiliating and embarrassing! No one should have to be subjected to that kind of abuse, ever! I wear and hoodie and cover my hair to hide the fact that I am a woman, most of the time! It feels safer, whether it is or not.
      Any action that puts fear in another person is, to me, the most wrong thing anyone can do to another! Fear is crippling.
      Why don’t we just all agree to act like adults?

      • That’s sad Su, and is related to the the bigger problem. Women used to be cherished and this sort of behavior was strongly oppsed by 99% of men. But men and women never heard each other use the f-word, or casually talked about intimate topics, or listened on the nightly news about the President getting….pleasured in the Oval Office. Women didn’t wear clothing that allows obe to count the change in their pockets or that exposes their backsides all the time. What you are experiencing is the result of the coarsening of America and the destruction of mores that protected women AND men. So you have my compassion, but also need to join the rest if us in some soul searching.

  15. It's time for a change

    I’ve worked in SAP consulting since 1994 and visited more than 100 companies. What women have to put up with at the vast majority of these projects and workplaces is horrible. Consulting needs to change. It’s a boys’ club, where many consultants think they can talk about strip clubs and the last coworker they found attractive, all in front of other women. I’ve had to talk to subordinates, coworkers, and project managers about their harassment, gender bias, homophobia, and racism.

    To the men saying the answer is to not hire women… the answer is to grow up and treat everyone fairly and with respect.

    Articles like this one are the barest start. We need a lot of education and improvement in this area. Women, I’m sorry for all you deal with. I’m with you in hoping for a better future. Men, we have to own the problems in our workplaces and speak up when we see problems. Over time we can make this a better situation for everyone.

  16. As a woman who has worked in tech for a couple decades, this has been a long time coming. Many men are decent, sometimes they say something insensitive out of ignorance, I don’t hold it against them. But, men need to stop being ignorant. I was stalked in my first IT job (I was 18 years old). I have had inappropriate comments made about my body on multiple occasions. The truth is that every woman has a close friend or relative that has been a victim of sexual assault, if they are not one themselves. As a result, we are on the constant defensive. A professional environment should be a safe place, but isn’t always. If the good men out there, and there are many, just looked at the world from our point of view, they would act differently. I shouldn’t have to worry about being cat-called while picking up a prescription for my kids, while wearing sweats, but that happened the other day. Be aware that every woman around you has a story of harassment, and show empathy for that point of view, and the “false” accusations will go away. Then the true scum can be weeded out.

    • You can't be safe enough

      Nowadays men can’t be safe enough either. Paul (comment 27) explained that quite well. There are a lot of harassment cases that go unreported (where action should have been taken).. But…there are false allegations that have gone unreported in the media because the man did not have the same role as the Duke’s Lacrosse coach. For years now, I have pretty much followed most of Paul’s steps, and after the birth of the MeToo movement I have reaffirmed these precautionary measures.I don’t need the hassle or even the remotest possibility/opportunity for misinterpretation to ruin my career and possibly my life.

  17. Dan Meier

    Folks seem to be polarizing to opposite corners on these posts. But we really all want the same thing: to be respected. However, each of us has a different definition for precisely what that means, and that leads to LOTS of confusion.

    I’ve found two surefire solutions to this. The first is both the easiest and the hardest – it’s simply the Golden Rule: treat others as you want – expect – to be treated. (Welcome a comment about your tight pants? No. Want some random person to grab your ass? No! Want a well-deserved promotion to be conditional on having sex with your boss? NO!)

    The second is more difficult: clearly and respectfully communicate your boundaries when there’s a mismatch in how respect in a relationship is understood. We have the responsibility to respect others’ boundaries, whether or not we agree with them. So clearly and respectfully stating our own expectations can become a simple training exercise to get everyone on the same page again.

    We really do all want the same level of respect in the end. But to get it, we need to give it.

  18. Whether Male or Female one must be cautious simply because of perception and experience. If a man/woman has been in one or more negative experiences it influences their opinion of every future event. When you communicate with someone who has been harrassed you will observe they are highly sensitive, and in some cases, things are taken out of context as they observe or hear things differently. Past experiences seem to influence individuals that have been hurt.

    You can minimize the chance by simply being cautious and keep professionalism in mind. Public working relationships are the same. Don’t say something aloud that may be offensive unless in your own home. You have the right to say and express yourself there. When in public be mindful that “Politically Correct” has deemed what is right. I don’t like the term “Politically Correct” as it is not the same as what just should be “Correct!”

  19. Guy who's been on the receiving end

    As a male, I agree that men should learn to legitimately treat woman with respect at all times and, if they do, the whole issue will eventually resolve itself. (I know – pie in the sky.) That said, I actually read this article because I do find myself thinking that it’s not entirely impossible that I somehow might be caught up in today’s political climate and find myself on the wrong end of a false accusation. Thanks largely to the fact that SOME men are jerks and SOME women (I’m sure a much lower number) take advantage of the socially charged situation to either extract revenge or somehow benefit from a false report, I find myself walking on eggshells around female coworkers. I’ve stopped even acknowledging woman I don’t know when I pass them in the hallways for fear that they might misinterpret a friendly greeting for an unwelcome come-on. And I think that’s just sad considering that we are already so socially separated from each other, hidden behind our computer screens (just read some of these comments if you need an example – most people would never talk like that to someone in person.)

    And just to add another perspective that I haven’t seen mentioned here, woman can also be guilty of sexual harassment. I know because I’ve been on the receiving end. Several years ago I caught the attention of young female co-worker who was completely inappropriate with me. She would say inappropriate things and touch me suggestively. We were both in relationships and I was not interested in her at all but I felt awkward being a male complaining about an attractive woman showing me attention. It wasn’t until one day when I was having a bad day already and she decided it was a good idea for her to give me a shoulder rub at my desk that I had enough and made it clear that I was not interested. She seemed shocked that I would make a stink about her completely out-of-line behavior. But I went immediately to my manager to report what had happened because I didn’t want to be accused of harassing her! I know this isn’t nearly as common as a male harassing a female but it does happen.

    Bottom line, be professional at work. Act like an adult. Treat people the way you want to be treated.

  20. Johnny Doe

    Respect women.
    Go to strip clubs when you get frustrated.
    Ask for several hundred dollars or that Christmas bonus and go to a Cathouse (brothel)
    If you begin to like someone at work, apply to a different company and come back and ask her out.
    Instead of your secretary getting you coffee one day, get her coffee instead.
    or just work at home and away from other workers if it bothers you that much.

  21. I have to put in my two cents. My problem with all these accusations is the long term affect. If the incident or incidents did not cause you grief or a psychiatrist to deal with it, it should not be termed harassment. Getting an appreciative look from the opposite sex should not be termed misconduct. It is a natural biological function. Getting a congratulatory hug from a co worker for a job well done should not be termed harassment. A dirty joke amongst co workers will offend some, but so won’t a discussion of what you did in church on Sunday if they are an atheist. Some are offended when you mention your new car or house, because they are envious or feel less if they do not have such a thing to share.
    I found a co worker attractive and gave him mixed signals. He approached me one day and tried to kiss me. I slugged him, and he never bothered me again. I did not consider the act harassment because there was chemistry between us. I just did not appreciate the advance. He apologized and we continued working together. Boundaries had been established and we both abided by them. Was I damaged.? No. Was I anxious around him after? No. Get a thick skin people. We are human. We cannot kill attraction and shouldn’t become unfeeling individuals. The fear of being accused of harassment or misconduct is making the workplace more anxiety driven than the actual amount of reports.

  22. I talk to women at work as little as possible (purely professional, 100% work-related subjects only). I ensure my face remains serious at all times when interacting with women at work and never smile at them. I do not accept invitations for anything other than work meetings and if asked anything even slightly personal, I refuse to answer. I also don’t attend any office events, and this hasn’t hurt my career even a bit because I get a lot of work done. Do I like this way of doing things? Not at all, but as an intensely shy, profoundly introverted man, I feel I have no choice but to protect myself from wrongful accusations that could be levelled at me for just saying a friendly ‘hi’ to a colleague.

  23. One issue that hasn’t been touched is guilt by association! A close family member in a high tech program has a mentor who has been accused, but nothing beyond that, (ie. courtroom) of a sexual impropriety, (suggestive comments/ bad behaviour, etc…but NOT rape!).
    Some of this “family member’s” acquaintances took he/she out for dinner; stood up and proceeded to berated them in front of other dinner’s at the restaurant simply for the close working relationship that the accused and my family member have! Simply by having a close (and “Yes”) necessary relationship, the FM is tarred by an equally damning brush.
    This is an issue that I see more and more in media reports, that not only the accused but everyone associated in any way with the accused is condemned as well.
    You can see from my post that I am far from being comfortable about anything which could connect me and the FM and the implications they would experience in the workplace.
    Now,…5 years from now,….10,…15,…40,…. forever!
    Social media has long legs!

  24. Insidious_Sid

    All of these “Don’t do this or that and you’ll be fine” comments are preposterous. Women can get a man dragged into HR for any reason she comes up with and the man is guilty until proven innocent. If she’s a false accuser, she might even have collaborators in the name of “girl power”. There is no excuse for giving women that much power – this is not a solution. Men should NOT have to sacrifice their jobs or even their entire career because of one UNPROVEN ALLEGATION. The way these men are “brought to justice” and doxxed in only ad-hoc ‘social media justice tribunals’ is absolutely disgusting and has nothing to do with actual justice. I agree with men who are avoiding women, making sure their interactions are witnesses or recorded, or just hiring fewer women in general. Most men, like women, come to work to get a job done. It’s not right that a person can ruin another person with a single word. Women can be spiteful, vindictive liars just like men can be. No person should have some “Thor Hammer” of justice. There cannot be “special rules” for sexual harassment and sexual assault in any society calling itself fair and progressive. Inappropriate workplace conduct, sexual harassment and sexual violence are important issues, and education and enforcement to reduce if not eliminate these behaviors is surely needed. But, actions that are going to make decent men become fearful for their jobs is going to result in backlash… we’re already seeing it.

    • You can't be safe enough

      Let them say whatever they want. Men should be cautious in the way Paul explained (27th comment). I can tell you that I know quite some men who to a great degree exercise exactly the same way as Paul describes. Ridiculous or not, we don’t care!

  25. For the folks out there worried about false accusations and considering recording devices / apps, what are people using? I’ve heard about ‘ALIBI Witness’. Are people using stuff like this at work to record everything they say every day? Are there other options people have heard about or like?
    – Thanks

  26. Ann Pinckney

    It is gut wrenching when a girl on a high school or college sports team can vindictively and falsely accuse a male coach of sexual harassment just because she is angry for being cut from the team for not fulfilling her team obligations which she agreed to at the start of the season. The coach then must endure the emotional stress of a complete investigation. This can happen even when the coach has a “clean as a whistle” 35 year reputation. The “Me Too” women may have some truthful stories to tell, but it has also given birth to a whole new breed of nasty, vindictive women who want nothing more than to ruin a man by telling lies. Hopefully the old saying; “What goes around comes around.” will prevail because these evil women deserve nothing less.

  27. My approach is never to meet any woman alone in a closed – or even a public – space and never to speak to them about anything non-work related under any circumstances. I do not attend office social events of any kind, and don’t care that false accusations are rare or that most women wouldn’t make one. All it takes is one false accusation to destroy an innocent man’s life and I have no way of knowing which woman might do this – so I do not put myself in any situation where it could happen.

    • RiskAverse

      Yes, I agree with the above. I am adopting a policy of just avoiding women. Being married I don’t socialize with them anyway. Recently I have canceled appointments with women such as financial planners, estate planners, realtors, and at a recent trade show event I only spoke with vendors that have an available male attendant. Researching, I see false rape accusations in NY are 8-41%, Detroit 32%, so it’s not all that rare, as reported in the media. Also, women under 35 and not married are highest risk, previous history of fraud is also a factor. My work contract ended, but for the future shared office-space will need to be male-only for me to work there. I’m trying to be risk averse, hard to plan for the unknown so across the board avoidance is easiest. Exceptions include family and my wife of course, older married women, and females with great character after getting to know them, but if I don’t know them why take the chance.

  28. maleResponderOverTheHill

    Yes, I agree with the above. I am adopting a policy of just avoiding women. Being married I don’t socialize with them anyway. Recently I have canceled appointments with women such as financial planners, estate planners, realtors, and at a recent trade show event I only spoke with vendors that have an available male attendant. Researching, I see false rape accusations in NY are 8-41%, Detroit 32%, so it’s not all that rare, as reported in the media. Also, women under 35 and not married are highest risk, previous history of fraud is also a factor. My work contract ended, but for the future shared office-space will need to be male-only for me to work there. I’m trying to be risk averse, hard to plan for the unknown so across the board avoidance is easiest. Exceptions include family and my wife of course, older married women, and females with great character after getting to know them, but if I don’t know them why take the chance.