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Workplace Harassment: How to Recognize and Report It

Skye Schooley
Skye Schooley

Workplace harassment takes many forms. Here's how to identify some of the most common forms of harassment, as well as what you should do when you see it happening.

Workplace harassment is not just a big or small business issue. It exists throughout all types of workplaces in the U.S. From workplace bullying to outright discrimination, it's important to understand workplace harassment so you can avoid hostile work environments in your small business. That may mean holding yearly training sessions with employees to define things like racial harassment and workplace bullying. 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 harassment. All types of workplace harassment are illegal and not only affect an employee's productivity, comfort, and safety at work, but also put the organization in legal jeopardy.

Although many victims of workplace harassment think they would recognize harassment and report it to those in charge, harassment often leaves them 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.

"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. "The sooner you act on it, the easier it will be to put an end to it."

What constitutes workplace harassment?

Harassment in the workplace may or may not have physical evidence. Understanding what is happening to you can help when broaching the subject. According to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), misconduct 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 nonemployee.
  • The victim does not have to be the person harassed, but could be anyone affected by the offensive conduct.
  • Unlawful harassment may occur without economic injury to or discharge of the victim.

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

Types of workplace harassment

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 Chancey.

Psychological harassment

Psychological harassment is similar to verbal harassment, but it is more 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 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 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 Squad HR.

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

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 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," he said.

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 more common than you might think. According to a ZipRecruiter survey, 40% of female respondents and 14% of male respondents have experienced sexual harassment in the workplace. It's a prevalent crime that is not exclusive to women. A person of any gender can be the 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 working environment and making you feel uncomfortable, you should file a complaint.

How to report workplace harassment

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. In fact, most grievances and 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 in these nonviolent situations:

  1. Try to resolve the issue with the harasser in a calm manner. Ask them, 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 to resolve 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, 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.

When dealing with workplace harassment, you should avoid a few certain behaviors, 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.

Again, 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.

Workplace harassment laws

While effective policy starts with the decisions of business owners, there are wider 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: This law 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: This law 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: This law 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.

Matt D'Angelo contributed to the reporting and writing in this article. Some source interviews were conducted for a previous version of this article.

Image Credit: KieferPix/Shutterstock
Skye Schooley
Skye Schooley
Business News Daily Staff
Skye Schooley is a staff writer at and Business News Daily, where she has written more than 200 articles on B2B-focused topics including human resources operations, management leadership, and business technology. In addition to researching and analyzing products that help business owners launch and grow their business, Skye writes on topics aimed at building better professional culture, like protecting employee privacy, managing human capital, improving communication, and fostering workplace diversity and culture.