Sexual Harassment in the Workplace

Category : Career/Business / Visa/Legal Issues/Tax
Nov 28, 2014

It can be difficult to define what sexual harassment truly is. Often, victims feel they have been harassed when perpetrators don’t regard their actions as inappropriate or they are not even aware that they made someone else feel uncomfortable. Sexual harassment in the workplace can easily happen and yet, it often goes overlooked and underreported. Women (the common victims of inappropriate conduct) fear losing their jobs or becoming unpopular among their coworkers if they speak up.


If you are sexually harassed at work, you have the right to address the issue and take measures to ensure that it doesn’t happen again. Of course sexual harassment is illegal as stipulated (Article 12) in The Act on Equal Employment and Support for Work-Family Reconciliation, but it’s not considered a criminal act. That means the onus is on you to pressure your boss or superior to take the issue seriously and punish the offender.


What does that Act say?


Definition (Article 2)

Under Article 2 of the Act on Equal Employment and Support for Work-Family Reconciliation, sexual harassment is defined as:

“a situation where an employer, a senior, or a worker makes another worker feel sexually humiliated or offended by using sexually charged behavior or language using their higher status at work or in relation to work, or gives disadvantages in employment on account of no-response to the sexual gesture or other requests.”


After this definition, acts of sexual harassment become hazy. It is accepted that the victim’s word overrides the harasser’s defense. If you feel that you have been sexually harassed for whatever reason, you have the right to seek council and take legal action. However, if you (the victim) consumed alcohol before or during the time when the act took place, it might be harder to prove the actions were inappropriate. Common acts of sexual grievances in the workplace are:

  1. Inappropriate physical contact (touching, grabbing, use of force, kissing)
  2. Inappropriate speech (jokes, sexual comments, use of ‘pet names’ or terms of endearment to refer to employees)
  3. Inappropriate body language (staring or gesturing in a sexual way)
  4. Threats of a sexual nature or sexually related bribes

à Example: “You must do this sexual act to get promoted” or “I will promote you in return for sexual favors”.

  1. In addition to these offenses, forcing a woman to do demeaning or subordinate work to a man in the same position is also considered sexual harassment.
  2. Example: A women can claim sexual harassment if she is always required to serve men (coffee, drinks, prepare food) or do menial tasks which a man in the same position is not required to do.


Who (Article 3)

Under Article 3 it states that the rules of the act apply to all those employed in Korea. Harassers and victims can be superiors, co-workers, and subordinates. In addition to those in your immediate work environment, the law also applies to third parties such as customers, clients, merchants, and professionals. If a customer or client harasses you or if you are victimized by a shop keeper or your doctor (or any others in a professional capacity), you can seek legal assistance. It is also mentioned that both men and women can be victims as well as perpetrators. Furthermore, the law is applied to those treated inappropriately during an interview prior to being hired.



The law does not just apply to incidents that happen at work. The law may be enforced in cases where the harassment was done outside of the workplace. It is common to attend company dinners in Korea. These dinners are often the place where inappropriate actions and remarks happen rather than at the office. Aside from work dinners, sexual harassment can happen in cars, on business trips, at work or year-end parties, or at conferences. Don’t think that you have not been harassed because the incident did not happen at work. You can still go to your boss for help.


Punishment/Reconciliatory Actions


  1. The Employer’s Responsibility: According to the Act is it is the employer’s responsibility to take swift measures in dealing with sexual harassment. If an employer does not punish the offender or seek to resolve the situation, he/she can be fined up to 10 million KRW.


  1. Respect for the Victim: It is against the law to “take unfavorable measures” against the victim. The harassed employee cannot be fired, demoted or in any way treated negatively after a sexual harassment incident is brought up. If this happens, the employer can go to jail for a maximum of three years and/or pay up to 20 million KRW in fines.


  1. Sexual Harassment Education: Businesses are required by law to provide at least one hour of sexual harassment education for all staff yearly (or when new staff is hired). These programs help ensure that people are aware of what could be considered inappropriate so that they don’t accidently cross the line. If education is not provided, an employer can be fined up to 3 million KRW.


  1. Criminal Acts: Although sexual harassment is a civil matter, situations can escalate to criminal offenses. If you are raped, assaulted, or harmed physically, get the police involved. In these cases, it is no longer your boss’s responsibility.


What can you do?


Go to your Boss

It’s the victim’s choice to take action against sexual harassers and you need to speak to your boss. Make a formal complaint either by letter, by email or in person. It’s best to bring up issues as quickly as possible, but cases may be received up to two years after the incident(s). Your boss should respond to your complaint within ten days and your file should be kept for three years before dismissing it. If your boss is the perpetrator, seek management or HR advice. You will still have to address the problems directly to him/her.


Go the Labor Board

If action has not been taken, go to the Ministry of Labor (MOL)/The Labor Board of Korea. In many cases the MOL will step in and advise the employer on how to deal with the harasser.


File a Civil Lawsuit

If you don’t feel appropriate measures have been taken, you can file a civil lawsuit. You will need a lawyer to do this, but it can be the best route to take especially when your boss does not take your complaints seriously.


The Ministry of Labor

The Ministry of Labor is in charge of labor laws and can help foreigners who have problems with their employers. The Ministry of Labor will follow and apply The Act on Equal Employment and Support for Work-Family Reconciliation. The Ministry of Labor offers services for foreigners working in Korea. Do not hesitate to call if you have a problem at your workplace or if you need to clarify your rights.



  1. Ministry of Government Legislation
  2. Ministry of Labor
  3. The Act on Equal Employment and Support for Work-Family Reconciliation


National Labor Consultation Center

Phone counseling service is available from Monday to Friday, from 9:00 to 18:00.

  1. Overseas Phone: +82-31-345-5200
  2. Domestic Phone:  031-345-5200
  3. Website counseling forum


International Cooperation Bureau

This is the Ministry of Labor office that deals with policies and the Labor Acts.

  1. Phone: +82-2-2110-7436 or +82-2-2110-7445
  2. Email:


Foreign Workforce Policy Division

This part of the ministry deals mainly with non-professional foreign workers (migrant workers and laborers)

  1. Phone: +82-2-2110-7198


Photo Credit: The Korea Herald/Asia News Network

Tags : Sexual Harassment, Labor laws in Korea

Lindsey lived and worked in Seoul, South Korea for over 5 years. While there, she dabbled in different areas of work and explored the culture. She spent time teaching elementary students, business English to adults and high school students about college preparation. She also studied Korean, wrote blogs and tasted as many foods as she possibly could including fermented skate fish. Over the years, Lindsey developed a love for Korea and the culture. She is keen to share her knowledge of Korea with others and she will always consider Korea a second home.