As various hashtags and dispiriting headlines have shown in recent years, workplace harassment is unfortunately common—in every industry, at every level, for every type of person. From the highest-paid executive to the newest intern, it’s essential for every employee to understand the different kinds of workplace harassment and be able to identify them.
What is workplace harassment?
Workplace harassment is any unwelcome conduct that is based on gender, race, color, religion, age, disability, or genetic information. It’s a form of discrimination that violates a number of federal laws, including Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 (ADEA), and the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, (ADA). Harassment can occur on different levels in the workplace: between managers and employees or between colleagues who aren’t in a managerial relationship. Essentially, if you’re at work and are the recipient of unwanted behavior based on those personal qualities, it may be harassment.
Harassment crosses the line into illegal behavior when:
- The behavior turns the workplace into a hostile, intimidating, or abusive environment
- The harassment leads to (or is threatened to lead to) a change in employment status or salary
- The employee has no choice but to endure the harassment if they want to keep their job
States may have individual definitions or additional types of illegal harassment, so it’s important to know what your own state’s regulations are.
What counts as workplace harassment?
Although sexual harassment (for example, a supervisor that promises a promotion in exchange for a date) is typically the most commonly reported kind of workplace harassment, there are a variety of different kinds you should be able to recognize. Any of the following can be considered harassment (or at least problematic):
- Inappropriate touching of any kind
- Offensive or suggestive jokes or pictures
- Name-calling or verbal abuse
- Physical threats or violence
- Verbal intimidation
- Ridicule or insults
And although media and pop culture typically show harassment as coming from bosses or supervisors, harassment can occur between any two people. People in other departments, coworkers on the same status level, contractors or non-employees you may work with—anyone you encounter in a professional capacity can be a harasser or affected by harassment.
It’s also important to remember that harassment isn’t necessarily a one-to-one issue. If someone at work tells an offensive joke to a friend but someone else in the room overhears and takes an issue, it doesn’t matter that the third person wasn’t the intended recipient of the joke.
Harassment in the workplace also isn’t always cut-and-dried. Here are some examples of gray areas that can qualify as harassment, but might not be obvious at the time.
- At a party thrown by the company for employees, Joe makes private comments to a group of colleagues (including both men and women) about how women need to “grow a pair” and act more like men if they want to succeed at the company.
- Mary, Andrew’s supervisor, suggests that they should meet for drinks after hours to talk about his upcoming performance review.
- In the break room, Tom tells a joke that makes fun of people in a particular ethnic group. Allan is not a member of that ethnic group but finds it very offensive.
- At lunch in a common area in the office, a group of employees are talking loudly about their sexual conquests. Patty is sitting with the group, and laughs at some of the stories, but feels uncomfortable about the tone and subject of the conversation.
- Greg’s boss Jane wishes Greg a happy birthday and asks how old he is. When he responds, she then makes a comment about how he should start picking a hobby for retirement.
- Melissa lets her boss know that she’s pregnant and will be requiring maternity leave from October to December. Her boss suggests that she clean out her desk when she leaves in October, because “it’s never the same when they come back after having a kid.”
Any situation that causes personal discomfort in the workplace may qualify as harassment.
What to do about workplace harassment
If you know that certain behavior qualifies as harassment (or think it might), the first stop should be your organization’s Human Resources department. They’re required to provide guidance and resolution in accordance with the law. Internal resolution is usually the fastest way to stop an issue—especially if the behavior was unintentional on the harasser’s part. If you’re asked to “keep it quiet” or sign a confidentiality agreement, you should seek advice from an employment attorney to make sure the company is acting lawfully and giving you your full rights as an employee.
If the issue is not resolved, or if there’s a fear of reprisal, the government’s Equal Opportunity Commission (EEOC) is responsible for enforcing harassment laws. Employees who believe their rights have been violated can file a discrimination charge.
If you experience harassment or see a situation where harassing behavior is occurring at work, you should not feel obligated to “wait and see” or put up with it. No one should be made to feel uncomfortable in the workplace or put up with verbally, physically, or sexually abusive behavior. There are resources available to all employees to make sure that your rights are enforced and you’re able to do your job without interference.
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