Recognizing Harassment in the Workplace

The first step to preventing harassment in the workplace is knowing how to recognize it when it occurs. This guide will help employees recognize the signs of harassment in the workplace, and understand that harassment is always unacceptable.

Let’s start with the basics. Harassment is any unwelcome conduct received in the workplace that is based on race, color, sex, religion, age, national origin, or disability. And it’s against the law, violating the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967, and the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990.

There are two main types of conduct that are considered harassment in the eyes of the law.

1. Any conduct that is severe and pervasive to the point that it creates a hostile work environment. Intimidation, abuse, and hostility can all be forms of this type of harassment.
2. When offensive conduct is expected to be endured as a condition of employment. Requiring sexual favors for a promise of employment is an example of this type of harassment.

What Is Considered Harassment in the Workplace?

Getting annoyed at your coworkers or enduring petty slights are not forms of harassment from a legal standpoint. However, when the incidents increase to a point that the workplace becomes hostile, that is considered unlawful.
Examples of harassment include offensive jokes, racial slurs, name-calling, physical assaults, threats of violence, intimidation tactics, ridicule, mockery, insults, posting or sharing of offensive pictures, and interfering with work performance.
Harassment can occur in many different scenarios and circumstances. The harasser may be a supervisor, manager, co-worker, and even a non-employee, such as a vendor. The victims of harassment can include more than the particular person that is being harassed. Anyone witnessing the harassment can be affected. In fact, the harassment of one employee can be used as a threat to other employees. Also, harassment can occur even if there isn’t an economic injury to the person being harassed.

What are the Protected Classifications of Employees?

The types of employees protected under workplace harassment laws vary from state to state. However, these are the main classifications that are protected in the United States:

  • Age
  • Race
  • Religion
  • Nation of Origin
  • Sex
  • Gender Identity
  • Sexual Orientation
  • Physical Disability
  • Mental Disability
  • Skin Color
  • Pregnancy
  • Weight
  • Genetic Information

Examples of Harassment

Physical harassment isn’t just assault and battery. Any kind of unwanted physical contact can be considered physical harassment. It can be violent contact such as a shove or a push, and it can also be nonviolent contact such as hugging. Some forms of physical harassment can also be considered sexual harassment.

Sexual harassment is generally separated into two categories. The first is quid pro quo and the other is hostile work environment harassment. Quid pro quo is when an employee is expected to perform sexual acts in order to get hired, maintain a position, or be promoted to another position. Hostile work environment sexual harassment is when there is repeated behavior that creates a hostile working environment for the victim.

Verbal harassment is probably the most common type of harassment found in the workplace. It includes serious actions like threatening violence, but it also includes more subtle actions like name calling, telling inappropriate jokes, and mocking.

The following scenarios are examples of physical harassment:

Scenario 1: Mike works in the warehouse unloading inventory from trucks. Every day, Jim, a fellow employee, runs into Mike with his hand truck. Jim apologizes each time it happens, but it is obvious to Mike and other people that Jim goes out of his way to hit Mike.

Scenario 2: Gina has been hired as a receptionist in a busy doctor’s office. One of the nurses, Shelly, is often stopping by the front desk area to pick up or drop off charts. Several times per week, Shelly will touch Gina’s hair complimenting her on the style. Gina has told Shelly on multiple occasions that she doesn’t like anyone touching her hair, but Shelly continues to play with Gina’s hair on a regular basis.

The following scenarios are examples of quid pro quo sexual harassment:

Scenario 1: Margaret is interviewing for a position with XYZ company. At the interview, Marc the manager seems to be very impressed with her skills and previous work history. At the conclusion of the interview, Marc tells Margaret that the serious candidates are all required to have a drink with him before moving on to the next stage in the hiring process.

Scenario 2: Peter is the personal assistant to Bruce, the editor of a very prestigious magazine. Peter often accompanies Bruce on business trips around the world, keeping his schedule and doing other tasks as needed. On one of these trips, Bruce gets very drunk at the hotel bar and Peter has to help him to his room. When they get to the hotel room, Bruce asks Peter to come in and keep him company. Peter declines, which makes his boss very angry. Bruce threatens to fire Peter if he doesn’t come in for a few hours.

The following scenarios are examples of hostile work environment sexual harassment:

Scenario 1: Mickey has just been hired at a new start-up company. On the first day of work, her supervisor brushes his hand against her breasts as he is helping her log into her computer. Mickey feels uncomfortable but writes it off as an accident on her supervisors part. Over the course of her first two weeks of employment, her supervisor manages to “accidentally” brush against her breasts several more times. Mickey is now certain that the behavior is on purpose, and she starts avoiding her supervisor, even when she needs help or clarification on her work.

Scenario 2: Ben and Jenny work in the same cubicle space. It is obvious to everyone that Jenny has a crush on Ben, but Ben does not return her affections. Jenny asks Ben out on a date every Friday afternoon for six months, and Ben always politely turns her down. The HR department has asked Jenny to quit bothering Ben to go on a date, but Jenny persists in asking. Ben becomes increasingly more uncomfortable working with Jenny.

The following are scenarios of verbal harassment:

Scenario 1: Jamar has just been hired to his first job at a store in the Mall. After he has been properly trained, he is given the task of checking in inventory when it arrives each week. The truck driver that brings in the boxes for Jamar to check starts wearing a t-shirt with a racial slur on it each time he delivers boxes to the store. Jamar tells his manager about the shirts, but nothing is done about the situation. Jamar begins calling in sick on inventory day to avoid contact with the truck driver.

Scenario 2: Nancy is one of the oldest teachers at her elementary school, just a few years shy of retirement. In the break room, the younger teachers often tease Nancy about being a dinosaur and joke about how she is too unrelatable for the children. Nancy doesn’t like the teasing because it feels mean-spirited, and none of the other teachers is teased in a similar manner.

As you can see, there are many different forms that harassment can take in a work environment. It is important for everyone in the workplace to attempt to prevent harassment in all of its forms. It is especially important for those in a supervisory position to be vigilant and protect their employees from the devastating results of workplace harassment.

We hope you found this guide useful. To see how we apply these principles to a comprehensive learning experience, check out our Anti-Harassment & Discrimination,  and Sexual Harassment learning modules.

Download the eBook – A learning guide to recognizing harassment in the workplace
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