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