Workplace harassment is no small issue. It can embarrass, intimidate and hurt people. It can even ruin people’s lives. And it’s more than just not okay — it’s also illegal.
Some people don’t know when they’ve been a victim of workplace harassment because they aren’t aware of what the definition encompasses. Whether you’re an employer or employee, you should be able to spot these 11 unlawful behaviors and know what to do to prevent or address them.
According to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), harassment is a type of employment discrimination that violates:
• Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964
• The Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 (ADEA)
• The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA)
Federally speaking, harassment is defined as “unwelcome conduct that is based on race, color, religion, sex (including pregnancy), national origin, age (40 or older), disability or genetic information.” It is illegal when the victim must continue to endure the harassment in order to remain employed or it is so severe that any reasonable person would find it “intimidating, hostile or abusive.”
Some states, cities and individual businesses have definitions of workplace harassment that encompass additional behaviors and actions. For example, New York State’s Human Rights Law also protects people against harassment based on sexual orientation, gender identity, criminal record, marital status, political affiliation and activities, employment or unemployment status, identity as a survivor of domestic violence, military status and other qualities.
Verbal harassment is an all-too-common type of this behavior and one you may not recognize as harassment because it occurs so frequently.
It must pertain to protected populations and come in the form of insults, cursing, unwelcome jokes and comments, slurs and other verbal abuse that is not physical. Like other types of workplace harassment, it can be extremely upsetting and hurtful. For example, if a colleague uses a racial slur or makes a derogatory comment regarding people of a certain race when referring to or speaking with someone else, that’s a clear example of verbal harassment.
Even jokes or comments that seem innocuous when someone is saying them may actually rise to the level of verbal harassment without you realizing it. Frequent screaming or yelling at someone who belongs to a protected class also falls into this category.
As we will describe below, many other types of harassment also often fall into the category of verbal harassment.
Discriminatory harassment often overlaps with other types of harassment, such as verbal. It refers to any kind of harassment that is due to a person or people’s status as a legally protected class, including:
• National origin
Additional classes of people may be protected according to various state and local laws, too.
The above racial slur example is also an example of discriminatory harassment. Another instance could be an employer refusing to provide necessary and reasonable accommodations to an individual with a documented, legal disability — such as failing to allow employees who need to work from home part-time because of a disability to do so.
Or, perhaps a woman who is pregnant frequently faces unwelcome comments about how far along she is or must be from coworkers and managers at work. This, too, is an example of discrimination-based harassment (as well as verbal harassment) that is unlawful and unacceptable.
Sexual harassment is often the first thing that comes to mind when people think of workplace harassment. The topic was at the forefront of our national and global consciousness as a result of the #MeToo movement, when survivors of sexual harassment across industries and locations came forward to share their stories, starting with a 2017 expose on now-convicted sex offender Harvey Weinstein, who was accused of sexual abuse many times over. Following the expose, others spoke openly about their experiences with sexual harassment and assault, often at the hands of prominent men in many different fields.
Sexual harassment is characterized by sexual advances, comments, conduct and/or behaviors that are unwanted. It may involve unwelcome remarks, touching, gestures and several other behaviors.
We’ve seen many types of sexual harassment in the media and other contexts. Someone telling a sexually-charged joke — even one that seems funny to members of their audience — could be sexual harassment if it makes others uncomfortable. Sending a sexually explicit email to coworkers also falls into this category. Giving a backrub to a colleague is another example, as is discussing someone’s body in the workplace.
It’s important to note that sexual harassment can happen to people of any gender identity or sexual orientation.
Physical harassment is not as prevalent as verbal harassment but is much easier to spot and identify. Sexual harassment is sometimes physical in nature, such as when groping or inappropriate, unwelcome touching is involved. Other types of physical harassment include hitting, pushing, kicking or any type of touching that is unwarranted and unwanted.
Perhaps a manager (or colleague) pushes an employee. No matter what the cause — whether it’s frustration or something else — this is physical harassment, even if the victim doesn’t seem to be physically “hurt” afterward.
Someone might also violate a coworker’s space by pushing up against them. This, too, is a form of physical harassment. Threats or expressions of violence or physical harm also qualify. Throwing things (at another person or to inflict property damage) does as well.
It can sometimes be difficult to know the difference between physical harassment and playful or otherwise non-serious gestures and actions. However, if you or anyone else feels intimidated, threatened, uncomfortable or otherwise concerned by physical behaviors in the workplace, this could be physical harassment, and you should take it seriously.
The digital age has opened up many possibilities and offered plenty of advantages, including new vehicles for marketing and remote work. But it also presents challenges, and one of them is cyberbullying.
Today, employees have so many digital tools and arenas at their disposal, from Slack to social media to video-conferencing platforms. Some businesses also offer internal software to facilitate communication and collaboration among colleagues. But this also opens up a new vehicle for harassment, which can take on an entirely revolutionary — and sometimes even more harmful — form of bullying, called cyberbullying.
Cyberbullying can occur in many forms and contexts. People might spread lies, make derogatory comments about others, pose threats or post embarrassing images and content on social media or in online forums like Reddit. They might target people directly, sending private messages, or post comments in a larger chat or within a big group.
They can also use the guise of anonymity, either by simply withholding their names or creating a fake profile or persona, to spread malicious gossip and even threats. In fact, anonymity can embolden people; when nobody knows who they are, they are sometimes more willing to harass and harm others.
Any kind of harassment can feel personal — it’s an attack on you. But there is a distinction between harassment that is discriminatory in nature (attacks against people because of and based on their being a member of a protected class like race, national origin, sex, religion and so on) and harassment that is personal in nature. Personal harassment, of course, can be hurtful and harmful like any other type.
Personal harassment can be physical, verbal, sexual, psychological or of another variety. It can take the form of:
• Hurtful comments about a person (direct, for example, at their appearance)
• Demeaning jokes or remarks
• Overly critical remarks
• Inappropriate behaviors or comments
• Screaming or berating an individual
• Swearing at an individual
• Intimidating behavior
• Ostracization or refusing to work with a colleague
These are only some examples of personal harassment — which is often bullying, plain and simple. It does not further the work environment or contribute to a productive culture in any way; in fact, it contributes to a hostile workplace and environment.
Retaliation harassment is a type that usually occurs after an initial incident or series of incidents of harassment. It is intended to intimidate the accuser as a revenge tactic and to bully them into submission — such as dropping the original complaint or quitting the job altogether.
Retaliation harassment is unlawful and can be extremely damaging. Because it happens far more often than we would like to admit (or perhaps even realize), it can serve as a deterrent for people to report abuse or harassment in the first place.
Simply put, retaliation harassment looks like this:
1. Employee A harasses or commits some sort of professional violation of Employee B.
2. Employee B files a grievance against Employee A with human resources or management.
3. Employee A is informed of the grievance.
4. Employee A begins a targeted campaign of harassment against Employee B, meant to exact revenge and encourage them to drop the complaint and/or not file any additional ones.
Sometimes, the harassing employee may recruit other coworkers to harass Employee B, further intimidating them.
Like it sounds, psychological harassment adversely impacts the victim’s mental health and psychological well-being. It can involve different targeted actions and verbal abuse that breaks and wears down a person and their self-esteem. Like several of the other forms, this type of harassment can extend far beyond the workplace into the victim’s personal life, physical health and overall psyche.
For example, a manager might repeatedly belittle an employee’s actions beyond their work by questioning their intelligence and ability to get anything done. Or, they might ask for the impossible and berate them when they’re unable to do tasks no other person could reasonably accomplish, either.
Other examples include consistently and repeatedly isolating or excluding them from others, keeping important information to which they should be privy from them, taking credit for their work, challenging everything they say or do, ignoring their very existence, undermining their ideas or achievements, contradicting them at every turn, spreading malicious gossip about them and asking them to perform unreasonable tasks outside of the purview of their job.
When there is a power dynamic at play between the person being harassed and the harasser, that is called power harassment. The harasser could be the victim’s direct supervisor or someone higher up at the organization, even if they’re not within the same chain of command. When someone in the business hierarchy is harassing someone lower down in the organization, they are leveraging their power to intimidate or bully that subordinate.
This behavior often concurrently falls into the category of psychological harassment, too, as well as verbal. For example, a manager who constantly berates their employee for minor or perceived errors is engaging in all three of these types of harassment. Or, they might insist on the employee meeting impossible, unreasonable standards and punish them with excessive amounts of work or being taken off projects when they can’t meet them.
Quid pro quo (translated to “this for that” from Latin) usually refers to a form of sexual harassment in which something is offered to the victim in exchange for sexual favors or services. Some examples of what the harasser might offer are:
• Job offers
• Salary raises
• Greater responsibilities at work
• Leadership opportunities
• Additional benefits
Alternatively, the harasser might threaten to punish the victim if they don’t follow the harasser’s demands, such as by firing them, putting them on probation or refusing to hire them, even if they’re the most qualified candidate.
The perpetrator typically functions in a supervisory capacity or above the victim in the office hierarchy. Even if they make promises in a quid pro quo situation that they cannot actually keep (e.g. the harasser doesn’t actually have the power to give the victim a raise despite saying they would in exchange for sexual conduct), they are still committing the crime. Moreover, the victim may still file a legal claim if they agree to the harasser’s demands.
Quid pro quo harassment can be implicit or explicit (i.e. the perpetrator could hint at a reward if the victim gives them a sexual favor), although implicit harassment is often harder to prove.
An often-overlooked type of harassment, third-party harassment is no less harmful or important to know about than any of the aforementioned types. The term refers to harassment that occurs at the hands of someone who doesn’t work at the organization but acts as a third party, such as a customer, a vendor or a contractor.
For example, a client might make lewd, sexual remarks about an employee’s appearance or way of dressing. Or, a vendor could make inappropriate comments about a protected class of people.
Even if the employer or someone who works for the employer is not the perpetrator of the harassment, third-party harassment is still their responsibility and they are required to take steps to protect the victim and ensure that the behavior does not continue, such as by ensuring the perpetrator never has contact with the victim or terminating the contract and relationship altogether.
There is sometimes a lot of confusion about what employees are supposed to do when they experience harassment. They don’t know how to report it and to whom they should direct their complaint. They are also often afraid of reporting harassment out of fear of punishment and retribution.
In order to ensure your employees feel safe reporting harassment — something you should certainly know about — make sure you have a process in place, one that protects victims. Make the system clear and easy to navigate. There should also be a way for victims to report harassment anonymously. Everyone should know about the system, from employees to managers to the CEO.
Making your workplace safe and harassment-free starts with a clear, unambiguous policy. The policy should outline the rules governing proper workplace conduct and outlining behaviors that are unacceptable. The policy should be made available in writing and distributed via a company-wide system, such as email or an intranet. It should also be posted in an obvious location.
Things change frequently, within your organization and outside of it, so you’ll need to update your policy to respond to these changes. As part of it, you should explain the system in place for reporting harassment.
Many states, including New York and California, require employers to administer harassment training to their employees, with certain rules about how long the training must be, what should be included and covered and how frequently it must be administered. Even if you’re not legally required to provide harassment training, you should do so to protect yourself and your employees.
Among other topics, the training should educate employees on the different types of harassment and how to spot them, because many people don’t know the different behaviors and actions it encompasses.
Make every effort to follow the procedures outlined in your employer’s harassment policy if you feel safe and comfortable doing so. Otherwise, take the steps below.
If you are comfortable confronting your harasser, you should do so as a first step toward resolving or rectifying the situation. (The EEOC recommends doing so, as do many harassment policies.) However, if you’re in a situation in which you feel unsafe being alone with your harasser and discussing the conflict with them, then skip this step. This could well be the case if the harassment is physical or if the perpetrator is your supervisor or manager, among other situations.
If you do approach the perpetrator, be calm and ration — as much as possible. Explaining how their actions and behavior are affecting you and ask them to stop. If this doesn’t resolve the issue, proceed to the next step.
If the behavior continues or you’re concerned about approaching the harasser directly, go to a supervisor and/or your HR representative. It’s likely that they have a procedure in place for dealing with and addressing harassment. Provide as much evidence of the harassment as possible, such as emails, testimonials from others who have witnessed it or experience it themselves and so on.
You may be concerned that HR won’t properly address the problem, and unfortunately, that does sometimes happen. But this is a necessary step to take prior to filing a complaint.
If you’ve reported the incident to your employer and they haven’t adequately responded or dealt with it properly, then you should contact the EEOC. The EEOC will conduct an investigation into the matter and issue an impartial determination as to whether illegal harassment has occurred.
You may also consult a workplace discrimination attorney if you’re unhappy with how the situation has been handled by your employer. They will evaluate your case to advise you on whether it’s a good idea to file a lawsuit.
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