Types of Harassment in the Workplace

Elements of Unlawful Harassment and Discrimination

man inappropriately touching female coworker at her desk
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There are a variety of types of harassment which can occur in the workplace. Workplace harassment, whether  verbal or physical badgering based on sex, religion, or race, is unlawful and is also a form of discrimination.

Definition of Workplace Harassment

Workplace Harassment is a form of discrimination that violates Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and other federal regulations.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission defines harassment as unwelcome verbal or physical behavior that is based on race, color, religion, sex (including pregnancy), gender/gender identity, nationality, age (40 or older), physical or mental disability or genetic information.

Harassment becomes unlawful when:

1. Enduring the offensive conduct becomes a prerequisite to continued employment, or

2. The conduct is severe or pervasive enough that a reasonable person would consider the work place intimidating, hostile or abusive.  Also, if a supervisor’s harassment results in an obvious change in the employee’s salary or status, this conduct would be considered unlawful workplace harassment.

Additional Types of Workplace Harassment

Some states have statutes which prohibit discrimination or harassment on the basis of whether a person is a smoker. A handful of states including Wisconsin and New York, along with some private companies, have laws or policies which prohibit discrimination and harassment based on arrest records or convictions.

A few others prohibit discrimination in relation to a person's receipt of public assistance. The District of Columbia prohibits discrimination on the basis of marital status, personal appearance, family responsibilities, matriculation, or political affiliation.

Components of Workplace Harassment

Harassing conduct may include offensive jokes, slurs, name calling, physical assaults or threats, intimidation, ridicule, insults, offensive pictures and more.

Workplace harassment isn’t limited to sexual harassment, and doesn’t preclude harassment between two people of the same gender.

The harasser can be your boss, a supervisor in another department, a co-worker or even a non-employee. Interestingly, the victim doesn't necessarily have to be the person being harassed; it can be anyone affected by the harassing behavior. To file a valid harassment claim, you have to show that your employer tried to prevent and correct the harassing conduct and that the employee unreasonably rejected the employer's corrective efforts.

Some states have broad definitions of what constitutes harassment. For instance, a court in Florida determined that "fat jokes" made about an obese employee violated the American Disabilities Act. A New Jersey court ruled that a person could bring a claim for disability harassment based upon two remarks made about their diabetic condition.

Harassment at Job Interviews

In addition to harassment occurring in the workplace, it can also take place during a job interview. During an interview, employers should not ask about your race, gender, religion, marital status, age, disabilities, ethnic background, country of origin, sexual preferences or age. These are discriminatory questions because they are not relevant to your abilities, skills and qualifications to do the job.

Examples of Workplace Harassment

  • Pedro was a victim of workplace harassment when his boss repeatedly referred to him with reference to his country of origin and characterized his work negatively based on his heritage.
  • Ellen filed a claim with the EEOC because her boss restricted her to a receptionist role based on her appearance despite receiving her college degree and possessing the skills for an inside sales job. He repeatedly said that customers liked "having a looker up front.”
  • Bonnie was subject to workplace harassment when her supervisor asked her out for drinks on many occasions and told her that she could go long way if she played her cards right with him.
  • Jane was uncomfortable with references to the sexual conquests of co-workers in the break room. She responded to this workplace harassment by mentioning her discomfort to one of the perpetrators with whom she had a rapport. He spoke to the others, and their behavior ceased.

    Options for Dealing With Workplace Harassment

    Laws regarding workplace harassment are enforced by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).  Any individual who believes that his or her employment rights have been violated may file a charge of discrimination with the EEOC

    However, prior to doing so, victims should usually make an effort to resolve the situation internally. One option is to reach out to the offending individual directly. Describe your feelings and the unacceptable language or behavior and request that it stop.  Another option could involve contacting your supervisor for assistance if one is uncomfortable confronting the offender directly.  

    In cases where the perpetrator is your supervisor, then you can contact either the Human Resources department or your supervisor's boss and request redress.