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Workplace Harassment: How to Recognize and Report It

Workplace Harassment: How to Recognize and Report It
Credit: KieferPix/Shutterstock

Workplace harassment, whether it happens in person or online, is an issue impacting a number of businesses, both big and small. While the most basic types of harassment are verbal and psychological, there are also more serious forms, such as physical and sexual harassment.

All types of workplace harassment are illegal and not only affect an employee's productivity, comfort and safety at work, but it puts the organization in legal jeopardy.

Although many victims of workplace harassment think they would recognize when harassment is occurring and report it to those in charge, harassment often leaves the victim in an uncomfortable and confusing predicament.

Chris Chancey, founder of Amplio Recruiting, said that many victims of workplace harassment do not report it out of fear, and others are unsure of what conduct constitutes harassment and what doesn't.

"Some behaviors, albeit making someone uncomfortable, can seem so harmless – there are no physical signs of abuse – that few people want to report them for fear of being seen as petty or as a snitch," Chancey told Business News Daily.

Although broaching the subject of workplace harassment can be uncomfortable, nervousness is a normal feeling. Harassment claims should be taken seriously and addressed quickly and thoroughly, with as much discretion as possible.

"If you are being harassed or think you may be, but are too scared to go forward, educating yourself on the facts is a great way to gain confidence to stand up for yourself," said Becca Garvin, executive search consultant at Find Great People International. "The sooner you act on it, the easier it will be to put an end to it."

Harassment in the workplace may or may not include physical evidence. Understanding what is happening to you can help when broaching the subject. According to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), offensive conduct can include, among other things, offensive jokes, slurs, epithets or name-calling, physical assaults or threats, intimidation, ridicule or mockery, insults or put-downs, offensive objects or pictures, and interference with work performance.

Harassment also occurs in a variety of circumstances, such as:

  • The harasser can be the victim's supervisor, a supervisor in another area, an agent of the employer, a co-worker or a nonemployee.
  • The victim does not have to be the person harassed, but can be anyone affected by the offensive conduct.
  • Unlawful harassment may occur without economic injury to, or discharge of, the victim.

Garvin said, first and foremost, it is critical to know when you are being harassed at work.

"Not only are you protected [by law] from the person(s) harassing you, [but] you are also protected from your employer failing to protect you," Garvin said. "If you know someone who is being harassed at work, you cannot lose your job by reporting it yourself."

Verbal harassment can be an ongoing battle of destruction that can threaten your health and your career. It consists of demeaning remarks, offensive gestures and unreasonable criticism. It can involve insults, slurs, unwanted "jokes'' and hurtful comments.

Verbal harassment can be difficult to recognize and is oftentimes a gray area, since it is a nonphysical form of violence.

"Often, yelling, cursing or making inappropriate remarks or jokes about a co-worker is seen as a case of personality conflict and not as harassment, even when such behavior can have a negative psychological impact on the victim and result in outcomes such as depression, high blood pressure, anxiety," said Chancey. 

Psychological harassment is similar to verbal harassment, but it is covert and consists of exclusionary tactics, like withholding information. Chancey said that these actions are intended to mentally break down the victim, chip away at their self-esteem and deliberately undermine them.

"Behaviors such as taking credit for someone's achievement, making impossible demands, imposing unreasonable deadlines on a particular employee, constantly requiring an employee to perform demeaning tasks that are outside of their job scope, or persistently opposing everything someone says may not seem like harassment, but this can be a form of deliberate psychological bullying," said Chancey.

Even though digital harassment is online, it can be just as detrimental as in-person bullying. It is the newest form of harassment and occurs across many outlets.

"[Digital harassment includes] posting threats or demeaning comments on social media, creating a fake persona to bully someone online, creating a webpage about the victim to mock and belittle them and making false allegations online," said Sheri Mooney, CEO and president of Mind SquadHR.

Social media has become common in the workplace, and with the discussion of taboo topics becoming more acceptable, Chancey said it is now possible for anyone to digitally harass others in the name of free speech or being ''woke.''

"People tend to be braver, which, unfortunately, includes being meaner, behind a screen," Garvin said. "The good news about online harassment: It is documentable and easily proved. This helps so much with reporting and proving it."

To monitor the situation, Garvin suggested taking screenshots, saving emails on your personal computer and keeping a file of everything that makes you uncomfortable.

Physical harassment in the workplace can vary in degrees. Mooney said these can include simple unwanted gestures like touching an employee's clothing, hair, face or skin; or they can be more severe gestures like physical assault, threats of violence and damage to personal property.

Because of the variation in degrees of physical harassment, it can sometimes be hard to identify. Chancey explained that some physical harassment might be downplayed as a joke if there is no physical harm done.

"If an employee routinely shoves, blocks and kicks a co-worker, but the victim has never been hurt from the shoves and kicks, this might not be seen as harassment, especially if it is done by a supervisor or an otherwise high-performing worker," said Chancey.

Even if there is no severe physical harm done, it can still be considered physical harassment. If a situation becomes violent, employees should call 911 immediately and avoid intervening in the situation.

Sexual harassment is a serious offense and is more common than you might think. According to a recent ZipRecruiter survey, 40 percent of female respondents and 14 percent of male respondents have experienced sexual harassment in the workplace. It is a prevalent crime and is not exclusive to just women. A person of any gender can be the perpetrator or the victim of sexual harassment.

Sexual harassment includes unwanted sexual advances, such as inappropriate touching, sexual jokes, sharing pornography, sending sexual messages or requiring sexual favors, in exchange for a promotion or job security. Although defining sexual harassment may seem straightforward, it is not always so obvious.

"Sexual harassment in the workplace is seldom egregious," Chancey said. "Most of the time, it is masked in mild banter, inoffensive comments that are accompanied by sexual gestures or tones, or awkward but seemingly innocuous statements that portray people of a certain gender (usually women) in a negative light."

This creates a gray area that makes it easy for perpetrators to get away with their conduct. Mooney said that many victims do not want to draw attention, so they keep it to themselves thinking it will get better. Some victims are extremely concerned about retaliation, including job loss, should they report the harassment. However, if someone is creating a hostile working environment and making you feel uncomfortable, a complaint should be reported.

Human resource departments are intended to help employees, especially those in serious situations where they feel uncomfortable or in danger. A lack of physical evidence should not deter a victim from filing a complaint, and, in fact, most grievances or complaints lack physical evidence.

Mooney said that reporting workplace harassment is important, because there may be other victims who have reported similar offenses by the same perpetrator, and the employer could be waiting for more evidence to take appropriate action.

While many organizations have formal policies on reporting workplace harassment, others may not. Chancey encourages employees to take the following steps when faced with these non-violent situations:

  1. Try to resolve the issue with the harasser in a calm manner. Ask him or her, preferably in a private setting, to stop directing this behavior at you. However, if the abuse is physical, do not approach your harasser.
  2. Consider escalating the issue to your immediate manager, unless, of course, your manager is the perpetrator. Bring the issue to the attention of HR if your attempts at resolving it with the harasser fail. If you can, provide evidence such as screenshots, texts, messages and eyewitness accounts.
  3. If you feel that your managers, HR and company management did not deal with your case satisfactorily, get in touch with the EEOC, and they can investigate the incident impartially. Some larger municipalities or metro areas, like New York City, have their own laws and agencies regulating workplace conduct, in which case a victim may make a claim through that municipality. 

When dealing with workplace harassment, there are a few behaviors to avoid, according to Chancey. Most importantly, avoid retaliating, since retaliation can escalate the issue.

In addition, avoid complaining to co-workers. Your colleagues do not have much power to change anything and will likely water down your version of events if they are called to testify.

Finally, don't keep quiet about the harassment. Remaining quiet will not make the perpetrator's behavior go away. All harassment incidents should be reported, and all complaints should be thoroughly investigated.

Some source interviews were conducted for a previous version of this article.

Skye Schooley

Skye Schooley is an Arizona native, based in New York City. After receiving a Business Communication degree from Arizona State University, she spent nearly three years living in four different states and backpacking throughout 16 different countries. During her travels, Skye began a blog at www.skyeschooley.com. She now resides in the arctic tundra that is the northeast coast, writing for Business.com.