Sexual harassment has no place in the business world - or anywhere, for that matter. Yet the practice remains widespread and is costing American companies a great deal of money. For the sake of their own pocketbooks, if nothing else, firms ought to get tough with this issue.

A survey of 160 major companies by Working Women magazine showed that 90 percent had sex harassment complaints by female employees in the past year; that more than a third had been sued as a result; that a fourth had been sued repeatedly, and each spent an average of $6.7 million a year in sex harassment-related costs.Those figures are staggering and represent, as the editor-in-chief of the magazine said, "a financial time bomb for American business."

The survey marks the first scientific sampling of sexual harassment at major U.S. companies, the magazine said. The extent of the problem is shocking and clearly points out the need for the workplace - with its increased numbers of women - to be free of such behavior.

Sexual harassment, as defined by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in 1980, consists of any unwelcome sexual advance, request for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature that is connected to employment decisions or that makes a working environment intimidating, hostile, or offensive.

Employers are not ignoring the problem. Twenty percent of the complaints result in the offenders eventually being discharged and the others are given verbal or written warnings. But the persistence of such harassment seems to show that employers aren't getting through to male workers with their message.

There is no room in the workplace for sexual harassment, even though there are greater numbers of female employees than ever before. Women workers are entitled to respect, courtesy, and a friendly, yet business-like atmosphere. It will pay employers to make sure that environment prevails.