What Is Harassment?

Definition & Examples of Harassment

Stressed employee sitting at a desk

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Harassment is unwelcome and offensive conduct from a boss, coworker, vendor, or customer. Such offensive conduct may be unlawful, depending on circumstances.

Find out what qualifies as harassment, what liability employers have, and the recourse available to victims of harassment.

What Is Harassment?

Harassment is offensive, belittling, threatening, or otherwise unwelcome behavior directed at someone based on protected characteristics, including:

  • Age
  • Race
  • Color
  • Religion
  • National origin
  • Sex
  • Gender Identity
  • Pregnancy
  • Sexual orientation
  • Disability
  • Genetic information

Harassment can include a range of verbal or physical behavior, including:

  • Offensive jokes
  • Demeaning remarks
  • Name-calling, offensive nicknames, or slurs
  • Offensive pictures or objects, including pornographic images
  • Bullying
  • Physical assaults
  • Threats
  • Intimidation

It may also be considered harassment to interfere with someone's ability to do their work, or to retaliate against them for filing a discrimination charge or participating in an investigation.

Annoyances, "petty slights," and isolated incidents generally do not qualify as harassment in the eyes of the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), the organization charged with ensuring nondiscriminatory work environments.

How Harassment Works

Harassment in the workplace may occur in a variety of circumstances. In a given situation, a harasser may be a victim's coworker or supervisor, or they may not work directly with the victim at all, such as a client, customer, or vendor.

Harassment doesn't only affect the victim or intended target. The negative work environment that develops as a result might make other employees victims of the harassment as well.

Harassment and the Law

Demeaning another individual regarding a protected classification is discriminatory and therefore illegal.

According to the EEOC, harassment becomes illegal when either of the following conditions is true:

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

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), and the Genetic Information and Non-Discrimination Act of 2008 (GINA) are some of the laws that cover protected classes in the workplace.

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

The employer is automatically liable when a supervisor's harassment of an employee results in termination, failure to promote, or loss of wages. An employer is liable if the harassment creates a hostile work environment; they can only avoid liability if they can prove they took immediate corrective action and the employee unreasonably neglected to take advantage of the opportunity to correct the behavior.

Preventing Workplace Harassment

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.

Employers should develop policies that clearly define inappropriate actions, behavior, and communication. The workforce should be trained about the issue and educated about the expectations. Furthermore, the harassment policy must be consistently enforced and complaints treated seriously.

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.

What to Do if You Are Experiencing Harassment

If you are experiencing harassment in the workplace, you can begin by telling the person harassing you to stop (if you feel comfortable doing so).

If they continue their behavior, your next course of action is to consult the anti-harassment policy of your employer, if there is one, and follow the steps outlined in it.

If there is no policy, talk with a supervisor and ask for their help. You may fear retaliation, but the law is on your side: It's illegal to retaliate against an employee for reporting harassment.

If you wish, you can file a discrimination charge with the EEOC. You must file a charge before you can file a lawsuit for unlawful discrimination. Generally, you have 180 days to file a charge.

Key Takeaways

  • Harassment is the unwelcome and sometimes unlawful conduct that demeans, insults, and offends an employee. The victim of harassment may be anyone affected by the offensive conduct.
  • Federal laws prohibit the harassment of individuals based on protected characteristics.
  • If you are being harassed, tell a supervisor, and follow your employer's anti-harassment policy. You also have the option of filing a charge with the EEOC.

Article Sources

  1. U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. "Harassment." Accessed July 24, 2020.

  2. U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. "What You Should Know: What to Do if you Believe you have been Harassed at Work." Accessed July 24, 2020.

  3. U.S. Equal Opportunity Commission. "How to File a Charge of Employment Discrimination." Accessed July 24, 2020.