Harassment at Work: Legal Definition, Types of Harassment, and How to Report it

Harassment at Work

Not every day at your job is going to be full of positivity — that’s just how life goes. However, sometimes work environments can be extra stressful due to hostile employees. Hostile work environments can have a serious impact on your mental, physical, and emotional health. Your work, too, may suffer.

Hostile work environments are defined as a work environment that makes someone unable to perform their duties, or uncomfortable due to targeted harassment of their protected class. Harassment can come in many forms and can range in severity, but it’s important to understand what is defined as harassment and how best to handle addressing it.

Let’s dive into the definition of harassment and how you can report it to your business and/or the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).

Definition of Harassment: What is Considered Harassment in the Workplace?

Off the top of your head, you might be able to think of some very obvious forms of harassment that you’ve witnessed in your workplace. It’s possible that you’ve heard someone tell an inappropriate sexual joke, or have seen someone be tripped by a coworker. But how is harassment actually defined? What constitutes a legal argument for harassment in the workplace?

The EEOC definition for harassment is as follows:

“Harassment is a form of employment discrimination that violates Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967, (ADEA), and the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, (ADA).

“Harassment is unwelcome conduct that is based on race, color, religion, sex (including pregnancy), national origin, age (40 or older), disability or genetic information. Harassment becomes unlawful where 1) enduring the offensive conduct becomes a condition of continued employment, or 2) the conduct is severe or pervasive enough to create a work environment that a reasonable person would consider intimidating, hostile, or abusive. Anti-discrimination laws also prohibit harassment against individuals in retaliation for filing a discrimination charge, testifying, or participating in any way in an investigation, proceeding, or lawsuit under these laws; or opposing employment practices that they reasonably believe discriminate against individuals, in violation of these laws.”

States may also have their own specific laws that protect individuals not covered by the federal EEOC standards. This can include state protection for military veterans, those with a prison record, political beliefs, sexual preferences or gender expression (specific to LGBTQIA rights), or even protections for those that smoke.

However, it is also noted by the EEOC that the legal definition of harassment does not include a single isolated incident (severe incidents, such as direct physical harm or wrongful termination, can happen only once and still be considered harassment). To be considered unlawful harassment, the conduct must make the victim feel unsafe in their work environment, threatened, fearful of retaliation, or the conduct must make it impossible for the employee to perform their regular work routine.

Harassment can come from anyone working within or even outside of the company. This includes superiors, company clients, customers, or coworkers. Additionally, the victim can be anyone affected by the conduct, and does not have to be the target of harassment. For example if two people are telling a racially insensitive joke and a person of color overhears it and is affected, then this constitutes harassment and could be reported to the EEOC.

Employers can also be fined by the EEOC if it is found that the company did not properly address the complaint in a timely or accurate manner. For this reason, employers are encouraged to respond promptly to complaints, and employees are encouraged to address both the harasser and their manager or Human Resource (HR) leader to ensure that the harassment does not escalate.

Types of Harassment in the Workplace

Harassment is specific to unwelcome conduct that is based on a protected class, but it can still come in many forms. Here are some examples of how harassment might appear in a workplace:

  • Verbal Harassment: Harassment can come in both physical and verbal form, but verbal harassment might be the most common form found in the workplace. This can be anything from an insensitive joke, to repeated name calling, or inappropriate references to a person’s protected class. Essentially verbal abuse is defined as any negative statement told to or about a specific person. Additionally, verbal abuse can be the lack of response towards an individual, acting as if they are non-existent.
  • Sexual Harassment: Sexual harassment is targeted harassment against an individual due to their gender. It can happen to employees of all genders but disproportionately affects women. Sexual harassment can vary from requested sexual favors, an invasion of someone’s space and autonomy, to an inappropriate sexual joke or comment.  Additionally, sexual harassment can be in the form of explicit photographs sent to employees, watching pornography in a workplace, discussing sexual encounters out loud with others, and having a sexual encounter at work (even when consensual). The EEOC notes that single isolated incidents might not be considered harassment, but when it escalates to a hostile work environment or adverse employment decisions (such as holding someone back from a promotion, not offering equal compensation for work simply based on gender, or firing them due to a complaint raised), then it can be filed with the EEOC.
  • Bullying and Psychological Harassment: Unfortunately, bullying is not covered by the EEOC as a form of workplace harassment. However, many workplaces have their own set of employee standards in place that might prevent bullying or targeted abuse (check with your HR representative or employee manual). The Workplace Bullying Institute defines in-office bullying as abusive conduct that is either “threatening, humiliating, or intimidating, or work interference — sabotage — which prevents work from getting done, or verbal abuse.” In essence, bullying is methodical and targeted abuse against an individual for no reason other than for the perpetrator to have control over the victim. It can be extremely detrimental to work and the performance of a company if allowed to escalate or continue after being initially addressed.
  • Harassment in Interviews: Additionally, you don’t have to be an employee with a company to experience harassment in the workplace. Harassment during the interview process can happen, and is protected by the EEOC. Interviewers should not ask interview questions based on your race, nationality, ethnic origin, age, gender, disability, sexual preference, marital status, or religion. None of those topics are relevant to your skills or ability to perform a job, and thus are discriminatory.

Harassment Versus Discrimination

Discrimination can be both action and verbal based, but is often defined as an adverse reaction an employer may take against an employee due to their protected class. For example, if someone if passed up for a promotion because of their race or gender, or is excluded from a meeting due to the room not being accessible to wheelchairs, these both count as discrimination. These actions can have an adverse reaction on the victim’s career, limit their ability to perform their job, and are thus discriminatory. In a more broad sense, harassment is a form of discrimination that has occurred repeatedly or numerous times.

Being Harassed at Work

No matter what form harassment may take, it should never be allowed to continue. It is the employer’s responsibility to address and put an end to harassing behavior so as to make the workplace a safe environment for everyone. Hostile work environments can harm more than the victims; it has the potential to affect everyone in the office as well as the performance of the company.

It’s important to note that although not all harassment may be treated equally, the impact it can have on individuals should not be discounted. Even if the intent of a comment might have been innocent, the impact it had on the victim should never be minimized. Addressing harassment and discrimination can be difficult, but awareness is the first step in the road to building bridges and creating a more equitable future for everyone.

Preventing Harassment at Work

The EEOC recommends a few steps to address and prevent harassment in the workplace. To start, victims are encouraged to address the harasser directly if they feel safe enough. The majority of times, the perpetrator might not have been aware of the impact their comment had on the victim. Bringing attention to it could prevent it from continuing or escalating.

Additionally, the EEOC recommends victims notify their manager and HR representative about the harassment so they can keep a detailed record of when it happened, how it was addressed, and if it stopped or escalated. If the harassment continues despite the employee being address, the company can (and should) take appropriate actions to notify the harassing employee that their behavior will not be tolerated. Otherwise they could be liable for the harassment you recieve. If it is not properly addressed, then it may be time to leave your job for a safer environment.

If the harassment is coming from a supervisor, then there are some unique challenges in place for the employer to avoid liability, and you could seek help directly from the EEOC if it is not properly addressed. If the supervisor harasses an employee to the point of termination, then the company as a whole is automatically liable for the harassment. However, as noted by the EEOC: “If the supervisor’s harassment results in a hostile work environment, the employer can avoid liability only if it can prove that: 1) it reasonably tried to prevent and promptly correct the harassing behavior; and 2) the employee unreasonably failed to take advantage of any preventive or corrective opportunities provided by the employer.”

No matter what, if a company fails to acknowledge harassment, fails to address it, or retaliates against a victim that speaks out, then the company is liable for any charges that the EEOC and victim may file against them. The EEOC will investigate heavily any allegations and records that are brought to their attention that is associated with harassing behavior.

Remember, the first step to stopping harassment is speaking out. None of the targeted harassment you may be receiving is your fault. Don’t let any harassing or bullying stand in the way of your success.

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