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Advisory Notice: The following advisory is a general discussion of the issues that may arise when a licensee is faced with situations that may be construed as sexual harassment. The discussion is intended to alert practitioners to questions and concerns that they may want to consider with their legal counsel, and is not to be construed as a directive or other requirement to take any particular action. This Advisory cannot be used as the basis for a charge of professional misconduct. The statements are generally based upon statutory and regulatory provisions relating to the practice of psychology, but are not legal interpretations of any of these provisions. The citations to the provisions are included to add clarity to the discussion. Practitioners are advised that if they decide to pursue any course of action based upon this discussion, private counsel should be consulted since there may be legal issues beyond those directly inherent in the practice of psychology that should be considered.

Psychologists should be aware of and avoid those behaviors that could potentially be interpreted/perceived as sexual harassment 1 and compromise the provision of professional services by complaints of sexual harassment. Sexual harassment is improper professional behavior and, where allegations are substantiated, may be grounds for disciplinary action. 2

In the context of psychological services, sexual harassment is defined as the psychologist's behavior of a sexual nature that is interpreted/perceived to be bothersome, demeaning, irritating, disrespectful or offensive. The behavior can occur in conjunction with the psychologist's activities or role as a psychologist (e.g. administrator, colleague, co-worker, consultant, educator, psychotherapist, researcher, supervisor, etc.) in the various settings in which the psychological services are provided (e.g. agency, hospital, private practice, school, organization, etc.). Behaviors construed to be inappropriate and forms of sexual harassment may reflect a loss of objectivity of the psychologist and could result in harmful long-lasting emotional and psychological effects for the individual. Be aware that sexual harassment can be interpreted/perceived by an individual regardless of the psychologist's intent. One should be aware of and sensitive to the cultural contexts of the individual patient or client, e.g., ethnicity, gender, religion, sexual orientation, social class, etc., when addressing sexual issues and be aware that this area can be sensitive and require attention to the individual's feelings and perceptions.

Examples of sexual harassment may include but are not limited to:

  1. Sexual jokes, teasing, making inappropriate comments about an individual's body, or showing explicit pictures.
  2. Unwanted or unnecessary touching or making expressions, which may reasonably be interpreted as being seductive or sexually demeaning.
  3. Asking a person for sexual favors for example as part of a "quid pro quo" arrangement.
  4. Sitting too close, initiating hugging or holding of the individual.
  5. Dressing in a style inconsistent with what would be considered appropriate in a professional setting, e.g., a provocative style that lacks professionalism and/or is insensitive to the individual's background or culture.

Ways to avoid complaints of sexual harassment include:

  • Become familiar with and follow the policy and guidelines for the avoidance of sexual harassment at your places of employment.
  • Take a continuing education course or attend a workshop for the prevention of sexual harassment to become familiar with the issues.
  • For those in private practice, develop a policy and guidelines for the prevention of sexual harassment, if none exists.
  • Respect the people around you.
  • Think before acting; asking yourself if your words or actions could be misinterpreted.
  • When feasible, the psychologist should attempt to design the physical space in a manner that is sensitive to issues of privacy and confidentiality yet balanced by these concerns.

Sexual harassment is a very serious matter and may result in charges of professional misconduct. If your actions have been construed as sexual harassment, take steps to address the situation in an appropriate manner. Depending on the circumstances, this could include, among other things, consultation with a colleague or supervisor, possible transfer of the patient, and/or interventions based upon inquiry, interpretation or clarification of the patient's motives.

1 The term "sexual harassment" is used to describe behavior that is recognized or identified in textbooks, professional journals, courses on such behavior, and the determination of the State Board for Psychology as being sexual harassment.

2 The following Rules of the Board of Regents on Unprofessional Conduct are legal provisions under which sexual harassment may be found to constitute professional misconduct:

  • §29.1(b)(5) (Moral Unfitness)
  • §29.2(c )(2) (Physical or verbal harassment, abuse or intimidation of a patient)
  • §29.12(a)(2) (Physical contact and the use of films and/or other audiovisual aids). This section, however, specifically provides for the use of films and audiovisual aids in some instances.