Nurses Face Sexual Harassment in the Workplace

picture of a nurse being sexually harassed
Written by
Miranda Kay, RN
March 20, 2023

Have you ever suffered sexual harassment at work? If not physical, it could be verbal or even intimidating attitudes or gestures. Keep reading to learn more about the prevalence of sexual harassment in the workplace and some advice for nurses on handling these situations.

Table of Contents

Statistics About Sexual Harassment in the Medical Field

A study cited in the Online Journal of Issues in Nursing reported that an astounding 91% of all nurses had experienced various kinds of sexual harassment in their workplace. 78% endured unwelcome and uncomfortable sexual remarks from patients and their family members.

What is the Legal Definition of Sexual Harassment?

woman standing with her hand outstretched to say no
Sexual harassment is illegal and training can help foster healthy workplaces.

According to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), "Sexual harassment is a form of sex discrimination that violates Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964... Unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature constitute sexual harassment when 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."

Mandatory Sexual Harassment Training

Furthermore, six states, California, Connecticut, Delaware, Illinois, Maine, and New York, as well as Chicago and New York City, have expanded on this federal law and require employers to hold mandatory sexual harassment training, as well as other provisions such as visibly posting a description of sexual harassment, its illegality, and the available complaint process. In all states, other laws, regulations, and court decisions clarify that employers should provide anti-harassment training to all employees. 

Sexual Harassment Laws and Penalties

In New York City, violators can be charged civil penalties of up to $250,000.

In California, the #MeToo movement led to a new law that extends the statute of limitations for reporting sexual harassment, providing a three-year window to file claims for crimes that occurred after January 1, 2009. That means sexual harassment claims previously barred by the statute of limitations can now be taken to civil court through December 31, 2026.

Read About Ending Sexual Abuse and Harassment Against Nurses

Defining Different Types of Sexual Harassment

The EEOC differentiates two types of sexual harassment claims: "hostile work environment," and quid pro quo."

  • The Latin term "quid pro quo," meaning "in exchange for," is used to describe a form of sexual harassment where someone demands sexual favors in return for some benefit or to avoid negative consequences in the workplace. This behavior is often seen when an individual within an organization tries to influence promotions, training, discipline, dismissals, raises, or other benefits in exchange for sexual favors.
  • Hostile work environment sexual harassment is committed when unwelcome sexual behavior or advances disturb, hinder or inhibit someone's work performance or cause an intimidating or demeaning work environment. Facing such behavior, many nurses are not sure what incidents should be reported or even if the instances they have suffered or seen are sexual harassment.

What Kind of Behavior Should a Nurse Report?

Improper sexual advances may be physical, verbal, or nonverbal. Many common instances of sexual harassment often go unidentified as such. The first step to stopping this intolerable behavior is recognizing it as harassment, not just regular interaction. If any of the following are unwelcome or intimidating, they are sexual harassment.

  • Indecent or improper remarks about a person's physical characteristics or appearance.
  • Derogatory language related to a person's gender or sexual orientation.
  • Calling a woman inappropriate terms, such as doll, babe, or sweetie.
  • Jokes with sexual overtones, remarks, or gossip about your sex life or that of others.
  • Direct questioning about your private life, sexual fantasies, preferences, experience, or history.
  • Staring, leering, or invasion of personal space.
  • Negative comments about people of a certain gender or sexual orientation (i.e., "women are…" or "gays all…").
  • Sexual jokes, even if not directed to you. For instance, as a trans person, if you hear coworkers making fun of trans people in general, it may still be considered harassment.
  • Displaying, sending, or sharing vulgar pictures, pornography, or texts of a sexual nature.
  • Persistent, unwanted requests for dates or sexual favors.
  • Intentional and unwanted touching of any body part, clothing, face, or hair, including hugging, kissing, pinching, or assault.
  • Gestures of a sexual nature.
  • Cornering a person, blocking their movement.

When Do Such Behaviors Constitute Sexual Harassment?

Possibly ambiguous cases of sexual harassment, such as teasing or offhand comments, become illegal when it is more than a single incident, unwanted, and creates an intimidating, offensive, or hostile work environment or affects the person's employment or work performance.

If behavior starts as welcome interaction and then crosses over to unwelcome conduct, you should announce that the behavior needs to stop. It has become sexual harassment.

nurse who looks stressed out and worried
Nurses need to feel free to speak out against sexual harassment in the workplace.

Why Don’t More Nurses Report the Unwanted Sexual Behavior?

Yale University School of Nursing cited a study that found 98% of the randomly selected claims reviewed ended up in some form of retaliation against the claimant, including demotions, humiliation,  threats and demotions or terminations. Fear is justified and definitely inhibits victims and from reporting.

In nursing academia, teachers who report sexual and gender harassment often experience “academic mobbing”, suffering psychological harassment, isolation, intimidation, deprivation of institutional resources, blackmail, humiliation and threats. It is a group bullying a colleague into leaving her/his job. Mobbers themselves have often been victims of mobbing and this behavior can go on from one generation to another, unless it is curbed.

What Nurses Can Do When Faced With Such Behavior

  1. Speak up: The first thing to do is tell the harasser to stop, that it makes you uncomfortable or that it offends you. Point out that the attention or behavior is unwelcome or unwanted.
  2. Write it down: If it continues, document each incident with a description, the date, time, and witnesses. Include photos of offensive material or copies of disturbing letters, notes, or other communication if possible. Documentation should be done on something different than a hospital-owned computer or through email(s) over the healthcare center network. The hospital management also should keep a written record with copies of all documents, the results of the complaint filing, including any actions the administration has taken to resolve the issue and the responses of those who engaged in harassment. All communications should be documented since a detailed written record may be crucial if legal action is needed.
  3. Stand Up for Yourself: Report it, either to the hospital management or, if your manager is the harasser, file a charge with your state's fair employment agency or the Federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). Nurses may also file a civil suit if neeed for compensation for damages. This is when you need to contact a lawyer if you haven't already. You can find free legal advice on confidential hotlines provided by New York and the federal EEOC by calling (800) 669-4000 or going to www.eeoc.gov/employees/charge.cfm. In most states, a complaint must be filed within 180 days after an act of sexual harassment.
  4. Talk About It and Find Support: Tell selected friends, family, colleagues, or your state nurses' association about it. You will be surprised how many nurses, including RNs, CNAs, LPNs, and allied health workers, have gone through similar ordeals, and you will be able to help each other.

Let's End Violence Against Nurses, Together!

Is Reporting It Enough?

Addressing and identifying sexual harassment in the workplace is one of the most difficult tasks for nurse leaders and nurses. Even if the hospital authorities take action and stop the reported cases, the workplace culture must change to prevent such intolerable and damaging behavior. Nursa speaks out to overcome the fear of reporting and challenge the stigma attached to victims. Institutional values and standards that shape decisions and behavior are the thresholds to building an ethics-driven organizational culture.

Blog published on:
March 20, 2023

Miranda is a Registered Nurse, Medical Fact Checker, and Publishing Editor at Nursa. Her work has been featured in publications including the American Nurses Association (ANA), Healthcare IT Outcomes, International Living, and more.

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