December 17, 2020    |    By

People can’t perform their best when they feel unsafe. Harassment of any sort in the workplace makes it impossible for an employee to feel safe. The longer the harassment continues, the worse the situation becomes. Everyone within the immediate area of the harassed individual can end up suffering over time. Harassment is also illegal. One of the best things an employer can do is prevent harassment from the beginning. If that isn’t possible, it means putting a stop to the behavior immediately is necessary. Let’s take a closer look at harassment to see what constitutes harassment and help you create your anti-harassment policy.

Defining Harassment

Harassment is simply defined as any behavior that demeans, humiliates, or embarrasses a person. The action must be reasonably considered inappropriate by the majority of individuals in the same situation. Harassment becomes a legal matter if a person must endure the behavior to keep their job or if the behavior is consistent enough and so severe that a reasonable person would consider it to create an unsafe or intimidating work environment. When determining whether a person can be deemed reasonable, think about anyone in the same position as the victim. For example, you can’t use a male perspective for behavior toward a woman, a superior’s reaction to compare with an employee’s perspective, or a person of one race or religion to determine the response of someone part of a different group.

Types of Harassment

There are so many workplace harassment types that covering all of them in this format would be impossible. Knowing what possibilities exist will help you recognize harassment quicker to take measures before a significant issue arises. The majority of harassment cases fall into the following categories.

Discriminatory Harassment

Discriminatory harassment is based mainly on the characteristics of people that can’t be changed or, in the case of religion, something that is an integral part of that person’s life. This form of harassment often occurs at the hiring stage, but it takes place regularly in unsupervised environments. These are only a few examples of the form discriminatory harassment can appear.

  • Racial Harassment – Behaviors, and comments such as name-calling, stereotyping or passing a person up for assignments because of their race.

  • Gender Harassment – Behaviors such as referring to a woman as “little lady” or other condescending names or making statements in a derogatory manner about someone being a “typical controlling male.” Harassing a person for being transgender falls into this category.

  • Religious Harassment – Making fun of specific spiritual practices such as refusal to eat pork or beef, commenting in a derogatory manner about a particular religion, or banning certain religious symbols and not others in the workplace.

  • Disability-Based Harassment – This category is self-explanatory. Other than outright making fun of a person with a particular disability, harassment can also include refusing to allow someone to work at a specific task without allowing them to try because you believe they can’t perform it.

  • Sexual orientation-based – Harassment surrounding sexual orientation involves derogatory remarks because a person is an LGBTQ+ community member.

  • Age-Based – Age-based harassment usually is only seen when a person is above the age of forty but can also apply to very young individuals. For example, a young adult is advanced academically and graduates with a degree at an age when many students are still in high school. Not basing hiring on the person’s training rather than a generation could be considered discrimination.

Psychological Harassment

Psychological harassment involves things that undermine a person’s self-esteem or sense of self-worth. Many people don’t consider psychological harassment as severe, but such abuse can be even more damaging than physical abuse. Some examples of psychological harassment include:

  • Isolating or denying the victim’s presence. Giving a particular individual the silent treatment falls into this category. To preclude someone from sitting at a table of coworkers at lunch or not inviting them to a company outing, would also be examples.

  • Belittling their thoughts involves always refusing to listen to a person’s ideas or disregarding all their plans as useless.

  • Discrediting and spreading rumors can ruin a person’s reputation. People consider false rumors dangerous but don’t realize that even spreading private information or supposition can also be damaging.

  • Opposing or challenging everything they say. Nobody is wrong all the time. By never considering a person’s point of view or opinion, you give the message that they are less than you.

Physical Harassment

Physical harassment is not something that many people encounter in the workplace, but it does happen, and understanding the signs is essential. This type of harassment puts the person in danger or engenders the constant fear of uncertainty. Physical harassment can include:

  • Threatening behavior such as raising a hand or fist as if to strike a person or standing close enough to make them think you may be ready to shove them.

  • Destroying properties such as tearing up papers from the desk, breaking objects, or damaging anything when angry can be considered threatening.

  • Direct threats to inflict harm. This type of harassment is self-explanatory.

  • Physical attacks include hitting, pushing, tripping, pinching, and any other behavior that causes a person to feel fear or pain.

Power Harassment

Power harassment occurs between an employee and someone in a supervisory position. This type of harassment makes it clear that the person doing the harassment uses their power to intimidate those beneath their status. There is often the threat of losing one’s position if not compliant.

  • Excessive demands, such as requiring a person to work long hours consistently, or demanding work that is not part of their job description, falls into this category.

  • Demeaning demands include having one person always getting the coffee for you or the office or having an office worker clean areas when there is a cleaning crew. This demanding is not harassment when everyone is subject to the same demands.

  • Intrusion on personal life can involve asking personal questions that don’t pertain to the employee’s ability to do their job. Another form of this is giving unasked for personal advice about the previous types of issues.

Sexual Harassment

Sexual harassment is something we hear about the most. This type of harassment usually is male against female but can also involve a female harassing a male or even when both people are of the same sex.

  • Quid Pro Quo Harassment involves demanding sexual favors for something such as a raise or keeping your position.

  • Hostile Work Environment Harassment involves ongoing harassment by either a boss or coworkers to the extent that life in the workplace becomes unbearable. Specific sexual harassment doesn’t need to be present. Still, there is often an element of the harassment on physical traits such as large breasts or assuming specific sexual organs are smaller than average.

  • Indirect Sexual Harassment is offensive things that avoid direction at a particular person. This harassment can include things like having to view an offending poster of a pin-up or a screensaver that depicts sexual content. Indirect sexual harassment can involve listening to regular sexual jokes or talk of a sexual nature.

Personal Harassment

Personal harassment involves harassment of people not in protected groups such as those protected by law from discrimination. Things like weight-shaming can fall into this category. Take into account that these actions need to happen more than once as a person needs to know something is unwanted or offending before it becomes harassment. Some examples include:

  • Offensive Jokes

  • Personal Humiliation

  • Critical Remarks

  • Ostracizing Behaviors

  • Intimidation Tactics

Retaliation Harassment

Retaliation harassment is basically “getting even.” This type of harassment is often overlooked because most adults don’t consider that others can be that petty. Unfortunately, retaliation harassment happens often. For example, Ed and Andy are up for the same promotion. They both have equal qualifications, but Ed gets the position based on a better attendance record or some such thing. Andy becomes angry, and every time he is near Ed, he makes critical remarks, starts a rumor that Ed got the position because he did something illegal or immoral, or starts turning other coworkers against Ed. All of this is retaliation harassment because it occurred when Ed got the position, and Andy didn’t.

Third-Party Harassment

Third-Party Harassment does not come from within a business. This kind of harassment can occur in places that employ cashiers or other customer services. This harassment can take any of the forms listed against the worker, who may feel they need to take it as part of the position. This type of harassment can occur when someone outside the business sets out to create a problem for an employee of the business by calling and making false allegations against an employee as an example.

Online / Cyberbullying

Cyberbullying has become more prominent in the past few years. We usually consider this harassment to be limited only to school-aged children, but it also occurs among adults. Cyberbullying can include sending threatening emails, instant messages, or sharing derogatory pictures of a coworker with other people in the workplace.

Verbal Harassment

Verbal harassment doesn’t always have to be illegal, and in many cases, it isn’t. It is things like threatening, yelling, insulting, or cursing at a victim in public or in private. Consistently being rude when answering or making a request can also fall into this category.

Handling and Preventing Harassment

Setting up ways to prevent harassment in the first place and having ways to handle such behavior is necessary and ideal.

  1. Establish a complaint procedure. Make the complaint procedure as easy as possible and clarify that everyone knows what type of behavior constitutes harassment.

  2. Create and communicate your policy. Once you have created your plan, make sure everybody within the company knows what the program is, how to file a complaint, and what the repercussions of such a claim might entail.

  3. Treat any incident as if it’s a court case from the moment it is reported. Treating the complaint like a court case is explained further in a minute. For now, take both the allegation and the possibility of innocence both into account.

  4. Quickly investigate any claims that may occur. Don’t allow the complaint to sit on your desk, getting pushed back for work you consider more important. A simple harassment complaint can turn into significant internal damage if not addressed and stopped.

  5. Don’t take any steps that may harm the person making the complaint. People will not willingly take advantage of reporting harassment if they feel they will suffer for it.

  6. Initiate disciplinary action against the person who committed the harassment. The first incident might be merely giving the guilty party a warning and letting them know what will happen if you get another complaint. However, if you already have public policy in place, make sure you follow through with any disciplinary action as quickly as possible.

  7. Take action to correct the misconduct. This action might include having a meeting to address the specific harassing activity and reminding the remaining employees of what effect will take place should any harassment be reported.

  8. Document the investigation. Formally document the steps you took to investigate and what action was taken based upon your findings.

Model Your Approach After Court Case Preparation

We spoke earlier of treating every harassment complaint as though it were a court case. Start by looking at the situation without preconceived ideas of guilt or innocence.

  • Take every complaint seriously. One type of harassment is just as crucial to the victim as another type. Don’t just brush off what you may consider being minor inconveniences. To the victim, harassment can be permanently damaging.

  • Investigate and document all details. You need to see the situation from as many angles as possible, including the victim and person accused: interview coworkers and anyone else who may know about the events. If cyberbullying is involved, get copies of any communication.

  • Don’t assume the complainant is oversensitive. You may not personally think the event warrants being upset, but you do not know what it is like to be inside the victim’s mind and body.

  • Don’t make credibility judgments based on the reputation of the person. Any person can change personality under certain circumstances. The two characters can clash for unknown reasons, or the person doing the harassing may be showing a side of themselves that never had the opportunity to be observed in the workplace until now.

  • Don’t leave the situation to both parties and have them work it out. If both parties could work it out themselves, it would most likely not have escalated to a report. A third party is often necessary at this point to prevent permanent damage.

Creating a Zero Tolerance Policy

Set a written policy stating your company has a zero-tolerance harassment policy. Keep in mind that zero tolerance means there will be no second chances. Zero tolerance also means that nobody is exempt, regardless of their position within the company or how long they have been working with you. The zero-tolerance harassment policy should contain:

  • A definition of harassment. List as many types of harassment as possible to help avoid questions as to what harassment involves.

  • A description of the complaint procedure. This description should be written clearly and preferably in a step-by-step format, so there is no confusion.

  • A description of disciplinary measures. This description and severity can vary based on the different offenses associated with each harassment type; however, employee termination is usually the end-result in zero-tolerance cases.

  • A statement of protection against retaliation. This statement informs everyone that the person who made the original complaint is not to be further harassed because they spoke up in the first place.

Creating a Healthy Workplace Benefits Everyone

The workplace is where employees spend as much or, in some cases, even more time than at home. Everyone deserves to work in a healthy, happy environment where they feel respected as a human being. Creating a harassment-free environment gives your employees that safety, allowing them to spend more energy on doing work to benefit the company. Everybody wins in the end.


A healthy workplace environment is a happy one.
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This blog post is intended for informational purposes only and does not constitute legal advice. No attorney-client relationship is created between the author and reader of this blog post, and its content should not be relied upon as legal advice. Readers are urged to consult legal counsel when seeking legal advice.