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Updated Oct 23, 2023

Workplace Harassment: How to Recognize and Report It

Workplace harassment takes many forms. Here's how to identify some of the most common forms of harassment – and what you should do if you see it happening.

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Skye Schooley, Business Operations Insider and Senior Lead Analyst
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This guide was reviewed by a Business News Daily editor to ensure it provides comprehensive and accurate information to aid your buying decision.

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Workplace harassment exists throughout all types of workplaces in the U.S. From bullying to outright discrimination, it’s important to understand workplace harassment so you can avoid a hostile work environment in your small business. By creating a workplace harassment policy, you can take the necessary steps to create a safe working environment for all your employees.

While the most basic types of harassment are verbal and psychological, there are also more serious forms, such as physical and sexual. All types of workplace harassment are illegal. They not only affect an employee’s productivity, comfort and safety at work, but they can also expose an organization to legal liability if it does not handle harassment properly.

What constitutes workplace harassment?

According to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), harassment can include “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 these:

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

First and foremost, it is critical to know when you are being harassed at work, said Becca Garvin, executive search consultant at Find Great People. Workplace harassment is a serious issue with a lot of gray areas. If you witness a crime or experience harassment in the workplace, it is your obligation to report it. If you’re worried about losing your job in retaliation, remember that you’re protected by workplace harassment laws.

“Not only are you protected [by law] from the person 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.”

Harassment in the workplace may or may not have physical evidence. Understanding what is happening to you can help when broaching the subject with the HR department. 

Workplace harassment is always hard to deal with, and it can be especially tricky to navigate if the person who is harassing you is also your manager. If this is your situation, consider these ways to handle a bad boss.

Types of workplace harassment

Workplace harassment can take many forms, and it doesn’t always look the same. Knowing the various ways workplace harassment can manifest itself can help you identify it when it’s happening to you or a colleague.

Verbal harassment

Verbal harassment can be an ongoing battle of destruction that threatens your health and 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 often 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 and anxiety,” said Chris Chancey, founder and CEO of Amplio Recruiting.

Psychological harassment

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

Digital harassment (cyberbullying)

Even though digital harassment takes place 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 Squad HR.

Social media has become common in the workplace, and with the discussion of taboo topics becoming more acceptable, Chancey said that it is now possible for anyone to digitally harass others easily given the ubiquity of internet-connected devices in the workplace.

“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.

If you are a business owner looking to delegate your HR functions to a third party in order to better serve your employees, learn how and when to outsource HR.

Physical harassment

Physical harassment in the workplace can vary in degrees. Mooney said that these can include simple unwanted gestures, like touching an employee’s clothing, hair, face or skin, and 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 be hard to identify. Chancey said 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.”

Even if there is no severe physical harm, 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

Sexual harassment is a serious offense and is more common than you might think. According to a McKinsey survey, 35% of female respondents have experienced sexual harassment in the workplace. Moreover, it’s a prevalent crime that is not exclusive to women. Anyone can be a perpetrator or 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 work environment and making you feel uncomfortable, you should report it.

Key TakeawayKey takeaway
There are many forms of workplace harassment, and anyone can be impacted. Understanding and identifying workplace harassment is the first step in resolving it.

Why reporting workplace harassment is important

Mooney stressed the importance of reporting any form of workplace harassment, because there may be others who have already reported similar offenses by the same person (or group of people). And if nobody has reported it yet, then it is even more important to call HR’s attention to it. You never know how many others might have been impacted by that perpetrator, regardless of whether or not they chose to report it. 

Many organizations have formal policies for reporting workplace harassment. Make sure you check your employee handbook or, if you are committed to reporting, ask your HR department how to go about doing so.

How to report workplace harassment

If your employer doesn’t have a formal reporting process in place, here are some of the steps that you can follow in a nonviolent situation:

  1. If the harassment does not involve physical violence, try to resolve the situation directly with the perpetrator. Approach them in a private manner and explain why you feel you are being harassed. If the situation seems too dangerous to do so, then keeping yourself safe is the top priority.
  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 to resolve it with the harasser fail. If you can, provide evidence, such as screenshots, texts, emails and eyewitness accounts. If your company uses HR software, file complaints through the appropriate portal to ensure everything is documented.
  3. If you feel that your managers, HR and company management did not deal with your case satisfactorily, get in touch with the EEOC, which can investigate the incident impartially. Some large municipalities and 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.

What to avoid when facing workplace harassment

When dealing with workplace harassment, you should avoid a few behaviors, according to Chancey. These mistakes could serve to escalate the situation or put you in a dangerous position.

  • Do not retaliate. Retaliation can escalate the issue and will often make matters more complicated. Instead, escalate the issue properly, and let your HR professionals handle things from there.
  • Do not complain 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. Also, it’s important to remember that your co-workers all have different relationships with each other. You never know how that person feels about the perpetrator and how you may be muddying the waters if you are talking negatively about them (even if it is warranted).
  • Do not keep quiet. You should always report any form of harassment, and it should be handled accordingly. Remaining quiet will not make the perpetrator’s behavior go away. All harassment incidents should be reported, and all complaints should be thoroughly investigated. [Related article: When Is It Time to Hire a Full-Time Human Resources Employee?]

Workplace harassment laws

While effective policy starts with the decisions of business owners, there are federal and state laws that protect workers from workplace harassment. A well-known example is the federal government’s requirement for all businesses to provide equal employment opportunity to all Americans. This is usually summarized at the end of job postings and applications, highlighted in an “equal opportunity employer” section.

These are some other workplace harassment laws:

  • The Equal Pay Act of 1963 makes it illegal for businesses to pay different wages to men and women if they complete the same level of work in the same workplace.
  • Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 makes it illegal to discriminate against someone on the basis of race, color, religion, national origin or sex. It also protects victims and individuals who report these crimes in or out of the workplace.
  • The Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 says that individuals over 40 years old cannot be discriminated against in the workplace because of age.

While these are most prominent examples of discrimination laws, safe working environments are the result of well-planned and consistently practiced individual policies within the workplace. Whether you own a small business or work at one, do your best to help foster and build a positive policy and protect your employees and colleagues. It will protect your business from potential liability and create a safe, inclusive environment that helps boost morale and improve employee retention.

Not only should you be familiar with these laws, but so should your employees. Make sure you create an employee handbook so that each person you hire understands your business’s expectations about workplace harassment.

David Cotriss and Matt D’Angelo contributed to the writing and reporting in this article. Source interviews were conducted for a previous version of this article.

author image
Skye Schooley, Business Operations Insider and Senior Lead Analyst
Skye Schooley is a business expert with a passion for all things human resources and digital marketing. She's spent 10 years working with clients on employee recruitment and customer acquisition, ensuring companies and small business owners are equipped with the information they need to find the right talent and market their services. In recent years, Schooley has largely focused on analyzing HR software products and other human resources solutions to lead businesses to the right tools for managing personnel responsibilities and maintaining strong company cultures. Schooley, who holds a degree in business communications, excels at breaking down complex topics into reader-friendly guides and enjoys interviewing business consultants for new insights. Her work has appeared in a variety of formats, including long-form videos, YouTube Shorts and newsletter segments.
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