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Workplace Harassment: How to Recognize and Report It

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

Harassment in the workplace manifests in many forms. It can present itself online or in person, and be verbal, physical or sexual in nature.

Abusive behavior like this creates a toxic work environment, but many workers feel uncomfortable reporting harassment to their bosses or HR managers.

"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 HR recruiter at Find Great People International. "The sooner you act on it, the easier it will be to put an end to it."

Broaching the subject at work is understandably nerve-wracking. This nervousness is a normal feeling, said Brian McClusky, human resources director at InkHouse PR.

"Nervousness is probably the main reason employees don't bring these issues forward," he told Business News Daily. "If they are not comfortable addressing the issue with their harasser [there are some instances when it may not be safe to do so], HR is a neutral, safe, third-party resource.

"Employees should be reassured that their issue will be taken seriously, addressed quickly and thoroughly, and with as much discretion as possible," he added.

Understanding what is happening to you may help when approaching the issue. According to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, offensive conduct may include, but is not limited to, 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 can occur in a variety of circumstances, including, but not limited to, the following:

  • 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.

"First and foremost, know that if you are being harassed at work, it's illegal and you are protected by law. Not only are you protected 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."

Harassment online can include hateful speech in emails, instant messages, tweets or other social platforms. It can range from name-calling to threatening behavior.

"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.

Bullying is defined by the Workplace Bullying Institute as a systematic campaign of interpersonal destruction that jeopardizes your health and your career. It is typically a nonphysical form of violence, instead consisting of verbal abuse, gossiping or threats that result in emotional harm.

Indicators of health issues resulting from bullying can include intense job stress, a feeling of being controlled by another person at work and using your paid time off for "mental health breaks" from the misery.

"One cannot establish a sizable successful company in today's world while having a culture of bullying," said Phil Shawe, co-CEO of translation technology company TransPerfect. "Not only is bullying or intimidation the wrong managerial style to permit for moral reasons, it also is a bad way to do business that cannot scale and, anything built on such a culture will eventually fail once it gets beyond a mom-and-pop size."

Violence in the workplace should be dealt with urgently. If a situation becomes violent, employees should call 911 immediately and avoid trying to intervene themselves. McClusky advised. 

"Even security officers employed by a company or its facility are usually not legally allowed to physically touch the employees," McClusky said. "Any threat or potential threat from a harasser should be reported and taken seriously, so that the proper parties — whether it be police, security, management, etc. — can be alerted and can take the proper steps."

Sexual harassment is a serious offense, and it's more common than you might think. According to a recent survey of 2,235 full-time and part-time female employees conducted by Cosmopolitan, one in three women have experienced sexual harassment at work at some point their lives. But it's not exclusive to women: A person of any gender can be the perpetrator or the victim of sexual harassment.

Very generally, "sexual harassment" describes unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, or other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature. Sexual harassment victims are protected under the law, because it's a form of sex discrimination that violates Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. This federal law applies to employers — including federal state and local governments — that have 15 or more employees.

"Many people — the harasser, the victim, any witnesses and sometimes even the employer — do not know what is legally defined as harassment," Garvin said. "Point blank, if someone is making you feel uncomfortable in a sexual way, it's not right."

The EEOC reported that 70 percent of women who experience sexual harassment at their jobs don't report it, for fear their report would cause negative repercussions both personally and professionally. Regardless of how you think your action will be viewed, sexual harassment should be reported.

Human resources departments are meant to help employees at their companies, especially in serious situations in which employees feel uncomfortable or in danger. If you're unable to resolve an issue with your harasser or feel that you're in immediate danger, it's time to seek help from HR, said Kaitlyn Apfelbeck, HR manager at Voices.com.

"The first question to ask yourself would be, 'Do you think the situation would resolve itself from one conversation?' If the answer is no, it is then appropriate to involve HR and department managers," she said.

McClusky advised going to HR as soon as you can, because the sooner HR can appraise the situation, the better. 

"Sometimes, the employee will wait, either because they are afraid of others finding out, or possibly even [of] retaliation or negative consequences to them," he added. "HR can assure the employee that these situations are treated with confidentiality … and that an employee will never experience retaliation or adverse consequences for bringing a claim forward." 

Most HR departments take harassment allegations very seriously, and at the very least, they will launch an investigation. However, for disciplinary action or termination to occur, there typically needs to be a direct witness or hard evidence against the harasser.

"Hard evidence comes in the form of emails, texts or other forms of written communication, but he-said-she-said [disagreements] will need eye witnesses to be considered plausible," Apfelbeck said. "If nothing can be proven, a note can be placed in an employee's file to document an incident in case further situations arise. If other incidents do occur, they should be considered a trend in which you may investigate further." 

McClusky noted that in cases where there are no witnesses, the company must do its best to investigate thoroughly and take the most prudent course of action they can with the information that they have, while being fair to all parties.

"Even if there was not a witness to the event itself, the investigation usually reveals information about the parties that can help fill in some of the blanks," McClusky said.

When in doubt, it is best to consult with HR, even if an issue seems minor, Apfelbeck suggested. 

"If you are uncomfortable about something or suspect you might be involved in some form of harassment, tell your manager or the HR manager," Apfelbeck said. "At the end of the day, your safety starts with you. Don't be afraid to speak up and ask for help."

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


Shannon Gausepohl

Shannon Gausepohl graduated from Rowan University in 2012 with a degree in journalism. She has worked at a newspaper and in the public relations field, and is currently a staff writer at Business News Daily. Shannon is a zealous bookworm, has her blue belt in Brazilian jiu jitsu, and loves her Blue Heeler mix, Tucker.