Unwelcome advances: how to deal with sexual harassment in job interviews

Mar 16, 2023

7 mins

Unwelcome advances: how to deal with sexual harassment in job interviews
Debbie Garrick

Freelance writer and translator, ex-recruiter

Are we still talking about sexual harassment in 2023? You bet we are. You only have to look at the hashtags of recent years #MeToo #TimesUp and #WhyIDon’tReport to see that it is still an issue. A staggering one in fifteen people experience sexual harassment at work, the majority of whom are women. Yet much of this goes unreported. A New York study in 2018 showed that over 32% of residents have experienced some kind of sexual harassment at work and almost 40% of them felt it had impacted their work or careers. Just this week Tik Tok was in the news for mishandling a sexual misconduct case across the pond in the UK, and closer to home earlier this year, JC Resort came under fire for not acting on complaints made by four young women.

Sexual harassment in an interview can be even harder to handle. How do you cope? Erin Gallagher, CEO & Founder of Ella for All, an organization that strives for intersectional gender equality, shares her views on sexual harassment and what we can do about it. Both from a company point of view and as an individual in the workplace or at an interview.

Sexual harassment can, unfortunately, happen to anyone no matter their gender. However, a 2018 report from Stop Street Harassment found that while men also experience sexual harassment, the prevalence and intensity of the experience are higher for women. So, in honor of Women’s History Month, we’re diving into what to do if you experience sexual harassment in an interview.

What is sexual harassment?

According to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEEC), sexual harassment is defined as, “Unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical harassment of a sexual nature. Harassment does not have to be of a sexual nature, however, and can include offensive remarks about a person’s sex.”

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 makes sexual harassment illegal. It’s not illegal for an individual to harass another, but it is illegal for a company to allow anyone to be sexually harassed at work. Companies are obliged by law to protect their employees from sexual harassment.

The Equal Rights Advocates website states that workplace harassment can take many different forms. The harasser could be a coworker supervisor, customer, or client and the offense ranges from unwanted touching, inappropriate comments, or jokes to someone promising you a promotion in exchange for sexual favors. The latter is what’s legally referred to as “Quid Pro Quo harassment,” and the other examples come under “hostile work environment.” Gallagher simply defines sexual harassment as any unwanted advancement. “It can be verbal, written, or physical,” she says.

Why does it happen?

To get to the root of sexual harassment and work on eradicating it, we have to understand where it comes from.

Gallagher believes it stems from the fact that the world is run by straight white men. She says that sexual harassment is insidious, and there’s not enough incentive to make changing things a priority. “In the US, the way so many of our corporate systems are set up is to protect the perpetrators and silence the victims. Until we have more women and people of color in positions of power and influence, this is going to thrive.” Yes, we know that it is not all #NotAllMen, but sadly #YesAllWomen have to deal with this reality. Women have to navigate this world where they are at a power disadvantage.

A big part of the problem is company culture; there’s no accountability. Gallagher explains that when women come forward, more often than not they are gaslit, asked to sign NDAs, paid off, and pushed out of companies. It might not be ethical or even legal, but it is the reality. She goes on to say that even the statistics we do have on sexual harassment are likely to be a significant underrepresentation of reality because so many people just don’t come forward. “When someone has power over your livelihood, they control the narrative.” Women are told that what they experienced didn’t happen and are left to deal with the consequences.

Gallagher shares a story from her past: “When I was a 26-year-old that moved to Chicago and was trying to find a job, two incredibly senior men, one at an agency and another at an executive search firm, were referred to me by people in my network. After one engagement of professional support, both of them sent me lewd texts saying things like, “I’ve been thinking about you…” These men were two and three times my age.”

What does sexual harassment in an interview look like?

Sexual harassment comes in all different shapes and sizes, it’s important to note that for something to be considered sexual harassment, it does not matter what the person harassing thinks—they may consider it harmless but if the victim doesn’t then it’s harassment.

Examples of sexual harassment in an interview include:

  • Making sexual jokes or comments, referring to sexual acts or sexual orientation
  • Physical acts of sexual assault (unwanted touching)
  • Questions about whether you are single, your sexual history, or your sexual identity
  • Requests for sexual favors
  • Unwelcome sexual advances
  • Unwanted sexually explicit emails, texts, or photos (this could happen in the follow-up)
  • Being pressured into sexually engaging with someone
  • Making conditions of employment either implicitly or explicitly linked to a sexual favor
  • Exposing oneself

There’s a whole range of seriousness here, but even something deemed minor can have a traumatic effect on the victim. Aside from that, it simply isn’t right to be put in this position in an interview.

What to do if you experience sexual harassment in an interview

Gallagher says if it were to happen to her now, in an interview situation she would just stand up and walk away. She’d call it out in the moment and be done with it. If faced with those texts 14 years on she’d send a scathing reply such as, “That’s an incredibly inappropriate thing to say to me, in what universe did you think that this was an appropriate response to a person who is seeking employment.”

Gallagher insists that her answer now is very different from what it would have been even five or ten years ago. “I want to be really clear that my privilege as a straight white woman and a business owner who doesn’t report to anyone is very different than if I were in a situation where my need for that job is incredibly high or my power in that situation is incredibly low.” Her answer is not something she gave lightly, and it’s not consistent across the board.

In addition, she states that if she found it necessary and helpful, she would report any inappropriate behavior, because companies need to know that this is happening. While women understandably don’t want to report much of this because either nothing happens or they are turned on, more of these men continue to be perpetrators if they are never pulled up on it. That said, Gallagher knows that for a single mom who needs to feed her kids, the temptation would be to laugh it off and, if she got the job, hope she wouldn’t be in close contact with the harasser, but you shouldn’t gamble your future on that. The emotional stress and everything that might follow isn’t worth it.

A report on Zippia says that between 58-72% of cases of sexual harassment in the workplace go unreported. But taking action is what affects change. These solutions could help you in such a difficult situation:

  • If you’re feeling brave like Gallagher, you can call out the perpetrator on the spot and ask them if they think that’s appropriate—if there are other people in the interview, ask them too. If they realize you’re uncomfortable, they could (hopefully) take a stand.
  • Report the incident to the company HR manager or somebody in a more senior position than the interviewer that harassed you. Legal advice is to do this in writing. The company is obliged to take action.
  • You could also contact an organization like RAINN or ERA for assistance, or report the harassment to the EEOC
  • If you’re in NYC, the latest sexual harassment prevention model offers an online form you can fill in and use to make a complaint.
  • Experts say you should write down everything that happened in as much detail as you can remember as soon as possible after the incident.
  • Remember that if it happened to you, the chances are you aren’t alone, and change will only happen if people speak up.
  • If you want to take things further, talk to a lawyer. You can sue for damages, but even the experts say you should weigh up the potential benefits versus the losses, pain, reputation, stress, etc.

What employers can do to combat sexual harassment in the workplace

Gallagher says that a great start would be having more women in positions of power and influence, and not just white women, something Ella for All is working to improve.

She explains that HR is in a tough position. The insinuation to employers is that they are there as a resource, but they are there to protect the company. So to combat this, companies need to work with external consultants, organizations, and individuals that can come in and get the real story about what is happening. “They are never going to find out what is happening with their executives, or if this is something that’s rampant in their organization, by having internal people field those questions, it’s not a psychologically safe space.”

If companies want the truth, they have to engage with external resources to give people inside the organization a safe space to share their experiences.

Following that, they need to hold these people accountable because otherwise, you’re asking victims of sexual harassment to relive their trauma with no change as a result. And, according to Gallagher, “Frankly we’re already exhausted by that.”

Lastly, it’s about education. Companies need to educate their employees from the top down about what is and isn’t acceptable, and what sexual harassment is. Policies need to be clear, investigations and actions need to be swift, and employees need to feel confident reporting without fear. It boils down to creating a workplace culture of respect, inclusivity, and accountability.

If you want to find out more about preventing sexual harassment in your workplace, the NYC Model Sexual Harassment Policy is a good place to start.

Who should lead the way?

Governmental institutions, NGOs, and organizations like Ella for All are working towards creating a fairer, more inclusive workplace. NYC and Florida have tougher laws on sexual harassment than other states, so others may now follow suit. While speaking up is tough, it’s also important for affecting change. Chances are if you get sexually harassed in an interview, you aren’t going to want the job, so consider reporting it, even if it’s just a simple email and no further action. Don’t be afraid to speak up—you can simply tell an interviewer that you feel their question is inappropriate, or maybe use a deflection technique to handle unexpected questions. You are completely within your rights to end the interview at any point and walk away if you are uncomfortable.

Photo: Welcome to the Jungle

Follow Welcome to the Jungle on FacebookLinkedIn, and Instagram, and subscribe to our newsletter to get our latest articles every day!