July 27, 2022

Workplace harassment can come in many forms. It’s often easy to spot when someone is being inappropriately harassed because of gender, race, or sexual orientation. Other times, it’s more difficult to spot. For example, did you know that harassment can occur when a manager humiliates an employee in front of their coworkers?

Harassment in the workplace can have a negative impact on the victim and the organization as a whole. Not only does it make the victim feel uncomfortable, but it also creates a hostile work environment that limits the victim’s ability to work effectively. Most importantly, abuse and discrimination in the workplace creates a situation where the victim may lose confidence in their job and be hesitant to report future instances of harassment for fear of being reprimanded again. This not only creates a hostile environment for the victim, but it also limits their ability to work effectively.

As for employers, harassment can negatively impact morale, productivity, and the bottom line. And of course, it can lead to costly lawsuits that set your business back financially. It’s no surprise many small businesses outsource HR functions such as harassment policy development and training to protect employees, mitigate risk, and remain compliant!

Below, we’re reviewing the definition and different types of workplace harassment to help business owners and leaders identify and prevent it.

What is Workplace Harassment?

According to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), “Harassment is a form of employment discrimination that violates 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 is unwelcome behavior that is based on a person’s:

  • Race
  • Color
  • Religion
  • Sex (including sexual orientation, gender identity, or pregnancy)
  • National origin
  • Older age (beginning at 40)
  • Disability
  • Genetic information (including family medical history)

Harassment is illegal when:

  1. A worker is forced to endure offensive behavior to keep their job.
  2. The actions are severe or pervasive enough to create a work environment that a reasonable person would consider hostile, intimidating, or abusive.
  3. It results in an adverse employment decision (i.e., the victim being fired or demoted).

The same anti-harassment laws listed above also prohibit employers from retaliating against an employee for filing a complaint or lawsuit, participating in an investigation, or protesting discriminatory employment practices.

Know Your State’s Harassment Laws

Additionally, some states have incorporated their own definitions and laws on harassment in the workplace. For example, a New Jersey court ruled that a person had a claim for disability harassment based upon two remarks made about his diabetic condition.

Employers must also be wary of what information they ask candidates and employees. Thirty-seven states, the District of Columbia, and over 150 cities and counties have adopted “ban the box” laws, which prohibit employers from asking candidates if they have a criminal record or conviction. Many also prevent organizations from performing background checks and requesting salary history.

If you’d like to ensure your company is compliant, consider outsourcing HR projects and training. HR firms like BlueLion can guide you on policy and handbook creation, harassment training, and ADA compliance.

Types of Harassment in the Workplace

Workplace harassment includes more than sexual harassment. Harassment can be overt, such as threats of violence. It can also take on more subtle forms. For example, if someone frequently undermines your authority in a meeting by making personal attacks or repeating gossip, it may be a form of workplace harassment.

Anyone can be a harasser, from a direct boss, manager in another department, colleague, or even a non-employee (such as a customer). And the victim is not necessarily the person being harassed – it can be anyone impacted by the offensive behavior. 

Harassment occurs not only in the workplace. It can also occur during interviews, so employers must be aware of off-limits questions surrounding:

  • Race
  • Gender
  • Religion
  • Marital status
  • Age
  • Disabilities
  • Ethnic background
  • Country of origin
  • Sexual preferences

These questions are irrelevant to the applicant’s skills, abilities, and qualifications for the job are discriminatory.

Bullying in the Workplace

Bullying is a form of repeated physical, psychological, or verbal harassment or abuse occurring at the hands of a peer or work supervisor. Bullying can take place in a variety of ways, such as name-calling, teasing, hostility, and threats.

And even today, bullying in the workplace is prevalent. A 2021 survey by Workplace Bullying Institute (WBI) showed that 48.6 million Americans are bullied at work. The survey also found that bullying is on the rise with remote work: It mostly occurs during virtual meetings and 43% of remote workers experience bullying.

Leaders can ensure the safety and well-being of their employees by looking for these signs of bullying in the workplace:

  1. Isolation: Look out for employees who are being excluded from meetings, conversations, or work-related activities — from specific projects to team-building events. Bullies will also ignore or avoid the targeted individual to make them feel isolated.
  2. Unfair Criticism: Workplace bullies might level constant and unfair criticisms at their target to make them feel inadequate.
  3. Manipulation: Bullies often manipulate people and situations, such as threatening others with passive aggression, shifting blame on others when things go wrong, or taking all the credit on a job well done.
  4. Undermining: A bully might undermine a coworker’s ideas by either embarrassing them in public or gossiping about them. This could also include speaking poorly of a colleague in front of superiors, intentionally preventing their success, or making them feel useless by assigning them unfavorable tasks.
  5. Lies & Deception: Keep an eye on liars — both those who lie directly and those who leave out the facts to get their way. This could include withholding or feeding employees the wrong information to make their colleagues look bad.
  6. Unrealistic Expectations: Toxic bosses and coworkers might assign employees tasks with ridiculous targets to set them up for failure and, once again, make them look bad.
  7. Toxic Competition: Workplace bullies sometimes pit colleagues against one another, incite backstabbing, or rank employees with the intent of shaming underperformers.

Sexual Harassment

The EEOC states that it is illegal to harass an individual – whether applicant or employee – because of their sex. The agency’s definition of sexual harassment includes:

  • Unwelcome sexual advances
  • Requests for sexual favors
  • Verbal or physical harassment of a sexual nature
  • Offensive remarks about a person’s sex (e.g., making generalized offensive comments about women)

Business owners should also beware of their legal obligations around training and resources. Certain states require employers to provide regular sexual harassment training.

Identifying & Preventing Workplace Harassment

A crucial part of maintaining a safe, healthy work environment is understanding what signs to look for and how to handle workplace harassment when it arises. Every organization should have an anti-harassment policy outlining the offensive conduct that will not be tolerated. Your policy should advise employees on what they should do if they experience or witness harassment at work. Additionally, employers should provide regular harassment training for both managers and employees. 

If you have questions about the different types of harassment or would like to enlist the help of outside experts for your company’s harassment workshops, contact BlueLion at 603-818-4131 or info@bluelionllc.com to learn more!

The information on this website, including its newsletters, is not, nor is it intended to be legal advice. You should contact an attorney or HR specialist for advice on your individual situation.