Sexual Misconduct in the Workplace: Education

This document is an educational overview on the topic of sexual misconduct in the workplace. If you have experienced an incident of sexual misconduct in your workplace, see our Sexual Misconduct in the Workplace: Get Help resource.

Wellesley Career Education is here to connect you to resources or provide support in situations where you encounter sexual misconduct in the workplace or experiential learning settings. Some scenarios may include:

  • Sexual misconduct during a Wellesley Career Education-funded or -sponsored program (e.g. Internships, Civic Engagement, Fellowships)
  • Sexual misconduct during a professional or experiential learning experience external to Career Education
  • Sexual misconduct during an interview or recruiting experience
  • Support with a career change after experiencing an unhealthy workplace
  • Addressing a past experience during an application process

Please know that our staff members are required to communicate any information that may be shared with them regarding sexual misconduct with Wellesley’s Office of Non-Discrimination Initiatives.

Understanding the Law

Title IX is a federal law that protects students and employees from discrimination and harassment based on sex in the educational setting. Employees are also protected from discrimination and harassment based on sex and other classifications outside of the educational setting under another federal law — Title VII.  Title VII applies to all employees in the United States who have over 15 employees (with some exceptions). Individual states also typically have laws in place that provide similar, and sometimes greater, protections against discrimination and harassment in the workplace. The extent of that protection varies from state to state. In Massachusetts, section 151B is the primary law prohibiting discrimination and harassment in the workplace, which applies to employers who have over six employees. Outside of the United States, protection against discrimination and harassment can vary widely between countries and is typically (but not always) less comprehensive than the protections we have here in the states.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) is the federal agency responsible for enforcing Title VII. The EEOC defines employment discrimination as “unfair treatment because of your race, color, religion, sex (including pregnancy, gender identity, and sexual orientation), national origin, age (40 or older), disability or genetic information.” The EEOC also states that employment discrimination can include “harassment by managers, co-workers, or others in your workplace, because of your race, color, religion, sex (including pregnancy, gender identity, and sexual orientation), national origin, age (40 or older), disability or genetic information.”  Individuals who believe they have experienced unlawful employment discrimination or harassment can contact the EEOC for information about filing a charge regarding that behavior.  Employees are protected against discrimination and harassment in the workplace during the interview and selection process, as well as during the course of their employment, with respect to pay, job assignments and discipline.

There often are also state agencies available to address issues of employment discrimination as well.  In Massachusetts, the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination (MCAD) is the agency responsible for enforcing 151B.  Employees can get more information about their rights and how to file a complaint of discrimination or harassment by visiting the MCAD website.   

Sexual harassment is a specific form of harassment which is sexual in nature or which is directed at an individual because of their sex.  There are two forms of sexual harassment. The first is Quid Pro Quo Harassment which is defined as sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct, which the submission or rejection of become the basis for employment decisions or a term or condition of employment. The second form of sexual harassment is Hostile Work Environment. A Hostile Work Environment is created when sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature have the purpose or effect of unreasonably interfering with an individual's work performance by creating an intimidating, hostile, humiliating or sexually offensive work environment. To better understand the nuances of sexual harassment, this Know Your Rights guide is a useful place to start.

Prior to Entering into a New Workforce, Internship, or Study Abroad Experience

There are many considerations to make before you enter into a new workplace, internship, or study abroad experience. You may wish to arm yourself with as much information as possible about the culture and climate to find the right fit for yourself. It is important to note that, although you can take meaningful steps to prepare, many instances of sexual misconduct are unpredictable. Always, the fault lies with the harasser and not the victim if you find yourself in a negative environment.

As you seek a healthy, safe work environment, be aware of warning signs and red flags, such as organizations and companies that demonstrate systematic underrepresentation of women in leadership roles.

Reach out to a person who is currently employed or recently employed by your workplace of interest. Introduce yourself and explain that you are considering taking a position with their previous or current employer, and that you would like to know more about their experience. If you do not already have a contact, search The Wellesley Hive or LinkedIn. Glassdoor Reviews can also provide insight into work culture; however, be mindful that anonymous reviews online do not necessarily reflect the broader opinion of employees and can be flawed or skewed. Gather multiple perspectives through a diversity of resources.

Most companies should have a sexual harassment policy and resources. If this policy and/or resources are accessible or obtainable prior to starting a position, they may provide clues as to how the company is working towards a safe and healthy workplace.

If you become aware of warning signs during your research process, discuss your concerns with a College Career Mentor or a Career Community Advisor in Career Education, or a trusted member of your Personal Advisory Board.

Before you depart for an internship or study abroad experience, know that there are resources available to you while you are away. You can find information on Title IX through the following links.

If you find yourself in a work, internship, or study abroad environment that is not safe and healthy, remember that it is not your fault. There is never a situation where you have signed away your agency by accepting an opportunity.

Healthy and Unhealthy Workplaces

Workplaces can be unhealthy for a variety of reasons, including mismanagement, lack of work/life balance, or low morale. In this resource we are exclusively addressing sexual misconduct and how it impacts workplace culture. Workplaces are like ecosystems, with every member of the team working together to create an environment that is healthy, productive, and collegial. It only takes one person crossing the boundary of sexual misconduct for that ecosystem to break down.

Workplace Boundaries
So, what are workplace boundaries? Within a workplace, there are a variety of boundaries and norms that regulate employee conduct. Of particular importance, sexual harassment is a form of employment discrimination that violates United States federal law. Additionally, some states, and even some municipalities, have additional protections regarding sexual misconduct in the workplace.

In addition to a company’s official policies on sexual harassment, a workplace environment is also shaped by cultural norms, professional standards of practice, and colleagues’ personal preferences. For instance, in some places, it is perfectly normal for colleagues to bring in family photos, discuss their personal lives, connect on social media, and socialize outside of work; whereas in other offices, colleagues will keep their personal and professional lives completely separate. Rarely is such workplace culture dictated by official policy; rather, it evolves as the result of professional and cultural norms.

Additionally, depending on where your organization is located, workplace culture and what is considered “appropriate” behavior may differ significantly. If you are working abroad, consider checking out the country guides on GoinGlobal to review culturally-specific office culture and professional protocol.

Contributing to a Healthy Workplace
You can also play a role by contributing to a healthy work environment!

  • Exercise emotional intelligence to gauge your coworker’s comfort with conversations about their lives outside of work and respect their personal boundaries by paying close attention to verbal and nonverbal cues.
  • Be aware that boundaries vary not only by workplace, but also by person. Be sensitive to an individual’s personal preferences, as they may differ from your own.
  • If you choose to drink alcohol at a work function, be mindful of your level of inebriation and its impact on professional boundaries.
  • If you are in an influencing role in your organization, refer to Emtrain’s Six Strategic Ways to Create a Healthy Workplace Culture for additional recommendations.

If You Are in an Unhealthy Workplace
In a 2017 poll conducted by the Washington Post-ABC News, 54% of women report that they have experienced unwanted sexual advances in the workplace. If you find yourself in an unhealthy or unsafe environment, know that you are not alone in your experience.

When a boundary is crossed at work or professionalism is violated, consider whether the boundary crossed was personal, a violation of your employer’s policy, or against the law. The recourse that you may take will depend on the specific offense. Regardless of the incident details, you may wish to document the misconduct to the best of your ability. Written support of the incident may benefit you, should you decide to pursue legal recourse or professional recourse through Human Resources. Career Education staff members are available to discuss your situation and help you determine the best path forward for you. Please note that our staff members are required to share any information that may be shared with them regarding sexual misconduct with Wellesley’s Office of Non-Discrimination Initiatives.

Our Get Help resource provides information about hotlines, counseling, legal, and medical support, along with other actionable steps to ensure your safety and/or take action after an incident of sexual misconduct.

Committee on Sexual Misconduct

  • Lindsay Laguna (Chair)
  • Alyssa Beauchamp
  • Kate Dailinger
  • Rocío Garza Tisdell
  • Dana Keep
  • Becky King
  • Erin Konkle
  • Tess Mattern
  • Sheryl Rosenberg
  • Katy Ryan

With special thanks to Sonia Jurado for her contributions.