What is Considered Harassment in the Workplace?
Harassment in the workplace is unfortunately nothing new. Although there are laws in place at the federal and state levels to prevent workplace harassment, it still happens far too often. In fact a recent survey reveals that 1 in 5 workers claim to have experienced harassment or violence in the workplace in the past year.
When most of us hear about harassment in the workplace, it’s often sexual harassment. The “me too” movement of recent years has certainly brought this issue to national attention. However, what constitutes harassment goes beyond unwanted sexual advances and sexual coercion in the workplace.
Here’s a partial definition of harassment from The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).
“Harassment is unwelcome conduct that is based on race, color, religion, sex (including sexual orientation, gender identity, or pregnancy), national origin, older age (beginning at age 40), disability, or genetic information (including family medical history). Harassment becomes unlawful where 1) enduring the offensive conduct becomes a condition of continued employment, or 2) the conduct is severe or pervasive enough to create a work environment that a reasonable person would consider intimidating, hostile, or abusive.”
What Behaviors Constitute Harassment?
There are all kind of behaviors that may be classified as harassment, including:
This can include directing derogatory insults, comments, or slurs towards an individual. It includes making fun of someone based on their appearance, perceived disability, religion, age, or sexual identity. Verbal harassment also includes yelling at others in the workplace or threatening them.
Examples of verbal harassment include:
- A worker making fun of another worker’s accent.
- A boss threatening to fire an employee if he takes a day off for a religious holiday.
- A boss telling her employees they’re “worthless and stupid” after not reaching sales goals.
- A supervisor implying that his assistant will be fired if she doesn’t agree to go on a date with him.
This type of harassment includes unwelcome and unwanted physical contact between coworkers, which creates an intimidating or hostile work environment.
Examples of physical harassment include:
- One employee rubbing the shoulders of another without permission.
- A boss trying to hug or kiss an employee.
- One employee shoving a coworker during a disagreement.
- A worker getting frustrated and kicking over a trashcan.
This includes displaying or showing others sexually explicit or offensive materials, such as posters, drawings, or decorations.
Examples of visual harassment include:
- An employee decorating his cubicle with pictures of women in lingerie.
- An employee making an insulting drawing of a coworker and passing it around.
- A supervisor sharing her “dirty joke of the day” with her team during their daily stand-up meeting.
- An employee displaying a poster with offensive language.
This includes sending offensive emails or texts to co-workers and posting derogatory comments or images online.
Examples of cyber harassment include:
- A boss texting sexually explicit content to her subordinates.
- An employee e-mailing a meme to his friends that makes fun of “boomers” for being too old out of touch.
- An employee who regularly uses offensive language in emails.
- An employee who forwards a link to an article that includes sexually explicit language and racial slurs.
What is the Difference Between Harassment and Discrimination?
The terms harassment and discrimination are often used interchangeably, but there is a difference between them.
Harassment, as we’ve been discussing, is a hostile or harmful action committed against a specific person because of their race, gender, etc. Discrimination, on the other hand, is when an employer treats members of protected classes of people unfairly because of their legally protected status.
For example, if a person who uses a wheelchair is made fun of by their supervisor, it’s harassment. If a person who uses a wheelchair doesn’t get a promotion because of their disability, it’s discrimination.
Here’s another example. If a supervisor threatens to fire his employee if she doesn’t welcome his sexual advances, it’s harassment. If a woman doesn’t get a promotion solely because her supervisor would prefer a man in the role, it’s discrimination.
The differences between harassment and discrimination in the workforce are subtle, but are important to recognize, especially if you decide to take legal action.
What Should You Do if You’re Being Harassed?
If you’re being harassed at work, write down in as much detail as possible the nature of the harassment. Include dates, times, and what was said.
Then, look up your company’s harassment policy and find out who in your company is responsible for harassment complaints. If no one specific person to handle complaints is listed, then you can speak to your company’s human resources department, an on-site counselor, your manager, or a person you trust in upper management.
Once your employer has been notified that harassment is taking place, it is their responsibility to ensure that it stops immediately and does not happen again.
You may also file a complaint with the EEOC who may conduct their own investigation. Just know that there are strict time limits when filing complaints with the EEOC. In most cases, you need to file the complaint within 180 days of the first incident.
Can You Sue if You are a Victim of Harassment?
You have a right to work in an environment free from harassment and hostility. If you are experiencing harassment, then you absolutely have the right to take legal action.
You can sue the person who is harassing you whether it’s a co-worker, a boss, or even a non-employee, such as a vendor or a contractor. You may also have the right to sue your employer whether they knew the harassment was taking place or not.
Of course, each state has its own laws and statutes of limitations when it comes to suing for workplace harassment. Your best course of action is to consult with an attorney specializing in harassment law in your state and/or the state where your employer is located. An attorney can give you the best advice on how to handle your particular situation.
Ending Workplace Harassment
Workplace harassment is still an unfortunate reality, even with today’s laws and protections in place. However, you can take steps to be prepared and prevent it.
First, look up your company’s harassment policies as soon as possible. That way, you’ll know what to do if you ever experience harassment. Second, understand the workplace harassment laws in your state. There’s no need to do a deep dive, but you should know what your legal rights are, what type of proof may be needed, and any time limits for taking legal action against your harasser.
Familiarize yourself with the types of harassment you or your co-workers may experience. One you know what harassment looks like, you’ll be more prepared to report it and end it before it goes any further.
Finally, if the harassment is too much to bear and makes you simply uncomfortable to work for a particular employer, then should consider finding a new job with a different company. You’ll need to ensure that you have a compelling resume that clearly showcases your value.
Maria Gold is a Content Manager/Writer for Empire Resume. She is dedicated to helping educate and motivate people with the latest career articles and job search advice. Her interests range from writing to programming and design. She is also passionate about innovation, entrepreneurship, and technology.