What Is Harassment?

Understanding and Addressing Harassment in the Workplace

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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 severe forms of harassment and bullying.

Harassment may also include offensive jokes, name-calling, offensive nicknames, pornographic images on a laptop, and offensive pictures or objects.

Interfering with an employee’s ability to do his or her work is also considered to be a form of harassment.

Employees can also experience harassment when they are not the target of the harasser because of the negative work 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 of employees, 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
  • Weight

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.

You avoid harassment charges when you create the expectation in your workplace that all employees will treat each other with respect, collegiality, fairness, honesty, and integrity. You can consciously create a workplace culture in which this environment becomes the workplace norm.

How Rampant Is Harassment?

There is no way to know just how rampant the various types of harassment are in the workplace. Undoubtedly, many go unreported to the employer or the EEOC. Others are adequately handled by the employer without the need for government intervention.

Other claims go to attornies and they are able to settle the claim but even cases that go to attornies often file an EEOC claim, too. Thus, employers get hit twice by the same lawsuit.

The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) released detailed breakdowns for the 91,503 charges of workplace discrimination the agency received in the fiscal year 2016. This is the second year in a row that the number of charges filed with EEOC has increased.

Overall, the EEOC resolved 97,443 charges and secured more than $482 million for victims of discrimination in private, federal and state and local government workplaces.

"Specifically, the charge numbers show the following breakdowns by bases alleged, in descending order:

  • Retaliation: 42,018 (45.9 percent of all charges filed)
  • Race: 32,309 (35.3 percent)
  • Disability: 28,073 (30.7 percent)
  • Sex: 26,934 (29.4 percent)
  • Age: 20,857 (22.8 percent)
  • National Origin: 9,840 (10.8 percent)
  • Religion: 3,825 (4.2 percent)
  • Color: 3,102 (3.4 percent)
  • Equal Pay Act: 1,075 (1.2 percent)
  • Genetic Information Non-Discrimination Act: 238 (.3 percent)

These percentages add up to more than 100 because some charges allege multiple bases."

Sexual harassment claims, in 2014, totaled 6,862 of which 17.5 percent were made by male employees.

Employers paid $93.9 million in 2014 to settle harassment claims and $35.0 million in damages for sexual harassment claims in 2014.

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 that the information provided, while authoritative, is not guaranteed for accuracy and legality. The site is read by a world-wide audience and employment laws and regulations vary from state to state and country to country. Please seek legal assistance, or assistance from State, Federal, or International governmental resources, to make certain your legal interpretation and decisions are correct for your location. This information is for guidance, ideas, and assistance.