What Is Harassment?

Understanding and Addressing Harassment in the Workplace

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Workplace harassment is unwelcome conduct from a boss, coworker, group of coworkers, vendor, or customer whose actions, communication, or behavior mocks, demeans, puts down, disparages, or ridicules an employee. Physical assaults, threats, and intimidation are severe forms of harassment and bullying.

Harassment also may include offensive jokes, name-calling, offensive nicknames, pornographic images on a laptop, and offensive pictures or objects. Interfering with an employee’s ability to do his or her work also is considered to be a form of harassment.

Employees can experience harassment when they are not the target of the harasser because of the negative work environment that can develop because of the harassment.

The Details

In all or some parts of the United States, demeaning another individual regarding a protected classification is illegal and discriminatory. As a form of employment discrimination, harassment can violate 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).

Protected classifications of employees, depending on your state, can include:

  • Age
  • Race
  • Religion
  • National Origin
  • Sex or Gender
  • Gender Identity
  • Sexual Orientation
  • Physical or Mental Disability
  • Color
  • Pregnancy
  • Genetic Information
  • Weight

According to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, harassment becomes illegal when:

  • Putting up with offensive and unwanted actions, communication, or behavior becomes a condition of continued employment, or
  • The behavior is severe and pervasive enough to create a work environment that any reasonable individual would find intimidating, hostile, or abusive.

Harassment against individuals also is prohibited as retaliation for filing a discrimination charge, participating in a harassment investigation or lawsuit under these laws. The bottom line is that employees have a right to challenge employment practices that they believe constitute harassment.

Demeaning an employee for any aspect of their parental status, appearance, weight, habits, accent, or beliefs can be considered harassment and can add to a claim about a hostile work environment.

Employers avoid harassment charges when they create expectations in their workplaces that all employees will treat each other with respect, collegiality, fairness, honesty, and integrity.

How rampant is harassment?

There is no way to know for certain just how rampant various types of harassment are in the workplace. Undoubtedly, many go unreported to employers or the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). Others are adequately handled by employers without the need for government intervention.

The EEOC releases detailed breakdowns of workplace discrimination every year. In 2017, the EEOC handled 84,254 charges and secured more than $125 million for victims of discrimination in private, federal, state, and local government workplaces.

Specific reasons for charges being filed are detailed below in descending order. Some charges include more than one reason, so percentages add up to more than 100:

  • Retaliation: 41,097 (48.8 percent of all charges filed)
  • Race: 28,528 (33.9 percent)
  • Disability: 26,838 (31.9 percent)
  • Sex: 25,605 (30.4 percent)
  • Age: 18,376 (21.8 percent)
  • National Origin: 8,299 (9.8 percent)
  • Religion: 3,436 (4.1 percent)
  • Color: 3,240 (3.8 percent)
  • Equal Pay Act: 996 (1.2 percent)
  • Genetic Information Non-Discrimination Act: 206 (0.2 percent)

Preventing Workplace Harassment

In any case of workplace harassment, an employer’s behavior must meet a certain standard in the eyes of the law. Just posting an anti-harassment policy, while a positive step, is insufficient to prove that an employer took workplace harassment seriously.

Employers should develop policies that clearly define inappropriate actions, behavior, and communication. The workforce should be trained and educated through the use of examples, and the policy must be enforced.

If harassment is mentioned to a supervisor, observed by a supervisor, or committed by a supervisor, the employer is particularly liable if an investigation was not conducted.

A clear harassment policy gives employees the appropriate steps to take when they believe they are experiencing harassment. Companies must be able to prove that an appropriate investigation occurred and that perpetrators found guilty were suitably disciplined.