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What Is Harassment?

Understanding Harassment in the Workplace

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Man frowns up at coworker standing by his desk

Harassment Is Unwanted, Offensive Words or Actions

Antonio M. Rosario / Getty Images

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 forms of harassment.

Harassment may also include offensive jokes, name calling, offensive nicknames, and offensive pictures or objects. Interfering with an employee’s ability to do his or her work is also considered harassment.

Harassment can also be experienced by employees who are not the target of the harasser because of the workplace environment that can develop and they experience as a result of his or her actions.

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).

These protected classifications, 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

According to the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, harassment becomes illegal when:

  • Putting up with the 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 is also prohibited in these specific situations.

  • "Retaliation for filing a discrimination charge,
  • ”testifying, or participating in any way in an investigation, proceeding, or lawsuit under these laws; or
  • "Opposing employment practices that they reasonably believe discriminate against individuals, in violation of these laws."

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.

How Rampant Is Harassment?

In 2011, 33,956 claims of workplace harassment were made, according to the Alliance for Training and Consulting. Sexual harassment claims totaled 11,364 of which 16.3% were made by male employees.

Employers paid $100,200,000 in 2011 to settle harassment claims and $52.3 million in damages for sexual harassment claims in 2011.

Preventing Workplace Harassment

In any case of workplace harassment, the 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.

The employer needs to develop a harassment policy; train the workforce using examples that make inappropriate actions, behavior, and communication clearly defined; and enforce the policy. If harassment is mentioned to a supervisor, observed by a supervisor, or done 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. The company must be able to prove that an appropriate investigation occurred and that perpetrators found guilty were suitably disciplined.

Employees do well to avoid harassment charges by living the platinum rule at work: treat others as they wish to be treated.

Disclaimer – Please Note:

Susan Heathfield makes every effort to offer accurate, common-sense, ethical Human Resources management, employer, and workplace advice both on this website, and linked to from this website, but she is not an attorney, and the content on the site, while authoritative, is not guaranteed for accuracy and legality, and is not to be construed as legal advice.

The site has a world-wide audience and employment laws and regulations vary from state to state and country to country, so the site cannot be definitive on all of them for your workplace. When in doubt, always seek legal counsel or assistance from State, Federal, or International governmental resources, to make certain your legal interpretation and decisions are correct. The information on this site is for guidance, ideas, and assistance only.

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