There isn't a lot that can be done to prevent and combat harassment in the workplace if you are unable to identify it when it happens. Some characteristics of harassment are well-known in the public eye because they fit the stereotypical portrayal that is found in things like the media. While those characteristics are valid, there are more that can be used to identify instances of workplace harassment that may not be so easily recognizable. Too many of the identifying characteristics of harassment listed in this article have been normalized, so it can be difficult to immediately recognize them for what they are. This can be especially true if the harassment is somewhat subtle or if it is widespread in the workplace.
The following characteristics are some of the major markers of workplace harassment; they are more that may not be as common or as frequently used, so do not treat this article as a complete list. Many of them can be evident with both victims and harassers, as well as bystanders who witness the harassment and/or who are indirectly impacted by it. In some cases, signs of workplace harassment may be interpreted as bullying; the two are often used interchangeably and are largely the same to some degree.
Any changes in behavior typically occur as a response to the harassment itself. Victims may act differently at work in general in order to avoid drawing the attention of their harasser, or their behavior may change when they are interacting with their harasser in some way. They may isolate themselves, suddenly come across as unfriendly or uncooperative towards their peers, and may avoid any unnecessary social interactions.1 Harassers themselves may present changes in behavior when they interact with their victims, even when they are not actively harassing them. They may become more attentive towards their victims, usually not in a positive way; things like noticing when they enter the room and purposely going out of their way to interact with them when it's not necessary, for example, are common.
Open Verbal Berating
While aggression of any kind is often a very clear identifier-more on that later-open verbal aggression like berating usually happens on its own. Harassers, especially those who are in a position of seniority, will yell at and verbally demean their victims for the most minor things. In some instances, there isn't actually anything that prompted such behavior other than the harasser's targeting of the victim. Statements may be made simply to put the person down and belittle them, or to openly insult or otherwise harm their image with others2 This can be especially noticeable if there are words or phrases being used that are particularly offensive towards the victim, such as slurs or derogatory terms.
Changes in Work Performance
The stress caused by harassment can impact a person's work performance and ability. Being unable to properly focus on tasks is not uncommon, and typically will show through the quality of their work. They may miss deadlines or present a final product that comes across as sloppy or rushed. Someone who normally is very quick on their feet and is able to find solutions with ease may suddenly slow down and struggle with basic problems if they are being constantly harassed.
In cases where the harasser is a superior or even a peer that they work with, the harassment itself may directly delay the person's work due to its frequency. For example, if a harasser is constantly interrupting their victim then that's cutting into their work time. Another example would be a harasser who may even be actively sabotaging someone's work as a part of their harassment, either by damaging or destroying it outright, intentionally introducing obstacles, or just outright preventing them from working. The extent of the harassment may also impact the harasser's work performance, especially if they are frequently going after their victim in lieu of completing their own tasks.
Anyone who has ever been bullied will know that there's almost no lengths that a person will go to in order to avoid the person who is causing them harm. As a kid you may skip school or classes to avoid a bully, and the same thing can happen as an adult who is being harassed at work. Changes in attendance, such as an increase in absences-explained or otherwise-may suggest that there is something going on in the person's life that prompts them to be absent. Victims of workplace harassment no longer feel safe at work, and may view skipping out on work and potentially being put at a disadvantage due to poor attendance as a much better alternative to facing their harasser. Changes in attendance may not just be absences from work altogether, but specific events. Again, missing a meeting with a client or your peers may be more appealing if it means that you don't have to spend an hour or two with your harasser. Likewise, harassment may cause a victim or the harasser to miss out on certain events because there is active instance occurring in that moment that is causing a delay.
Differences in Treatment
Treating a person differently and singling them out due to weak reasons (e.g. work quality) is fairly common with harassment, especially when it's between people of different power levels.3 For example, a supervisor who singles out a particular employee and bashes them and their work in front of others. In that case, it's a lot about power and the harasser exerting their control over their victim. The goal is often to isolate them from their peers to not only publically humiliate them and bring them down, but to make it harder for them to trust those peers and seek help from them.
Differences in treatment are not always going to be on the negative side, as excessive attention and praising bordering on favoritism can also be a sign of harassment. With that example, it's often a marker of a specific type of harassment, quid pro quo, where the harasser expects their victim to do things for them in return (i.e. "you scratch my back, and I'll scratch yours" mentality). That favoritism isn't necessarily a good thing, as it can lead to far more abusive practices at work and may even be used as a precursor towards sexual harassment. It can also cause a person to be isolated as their peers may develop resentment towards the person being favored, even if that favoritism is unwanted or unwarranted. The almost classic rumor of "so-and-so is sleeping with their boss" frequently is prompted by instances of favoritism and can foster further harassment.
Negative Emotions and Distress
Since harassment is often intended to make a person feel bad about themselves, victims will often experience negative emotions and some degree of distress as a result. A person's mental health almost always takes a hit when it comes to harassment and things like anxiety and depression are common. There's a lot of mental and emotional agitation that comes with harassment and it can be almost constant when you're at work, even if your harasser isn't present that day.4 The workplace acts as a trigger and it becomes exhausting to even think about going to work. The goal of a harasser is to degrade their victims, so the mental and emotional anguish is to be expected. It is not uncommon for a victim to feel like their treatment is deserved and to even feel shame or guilt about their actions due to harassment. Unfortunately, this can create a bit of a vicious cycle that can make it harder for the victim to seek out help, especially since mental and emotional distress can impact a person's physical health and lead to more distress.
Victims will often censor their statements and actions in an effort to not upset their harassers-or anyone else who may potentially become another harasser.5 It's a behavior that serves to protect oneself, and is fairly common in cases of abuse. Instances of censorship from the victim will often be coupled with the negative emotions mentioned above, like guilt and shame, that can come with harassment. They feel that they deserve the treatment that they are given, but they will do whatever they can to avoid it from being unleashed.
Harassers themselves may also exhibit censorship, but in a different way. Some harassers may censor their actions towards their victims around certain people who may put a stop to the harassment. It's still a censorship-as-preservation, but for a very harmful reason. A harasser may also censor their victim for the same reason, largely through things like threats and intimidation. Censorship may also be used by a harasser to silence their victim and prevent them from fighting back or resisting.
Gossip and Rumors
Gossip and rumors were mentioned earlier in the article, but they can be a warning sign all on their own. Some abusers will start false rumors about their victim to further harm them.6 It's another way to isolate victims from those amongst their peers who may come to their aid and to demean them further with the information in the rumors. When used effectively by a harasser, rumors and gossip can even cause a person's peers to turn on them and increase the sources and amount of harassment that is being directed at the victim. For some harassers, their goal is to destroy their victim as much as possible and they are willing to achieve that in any way they can.
Gossip to begin with can spread rapidly and can be difficult to correct, which means that destructive information-although false-can be treated as fact long after efforts have -been made to remedy the situation. It can often begin anonymously, which can make it harder for victims to identify their primary harasser(s). A harasser who is able to remain anonymous may even present themselves to their victim as a friend while isolating the person from actual friendly persons. In such a situation, it could be used as another precursor for quid pro quo or even sexual harassment by convincing them that the harasser is their only safe option in things.
Sometimes harassment in the workplace manifests as outright abuse. This can include physical harm, threats of any kind, manipulation, and other tactics that are categorized as abusive. Some tactics that are found in abusive romantic relationships may even be used by a harasser in the workplace because they can be adapted for the environment and still have the same effect(s). Gaslighting, for example, is an emotionally abusive tactic where an abuser convinces their victim that their memories and perceptions are not to be trusted through the manipulation of situations.7 It's a horrible tactic that can be used to convince a person that they are basically going crazy and alters the truth about situations and events. In workplace harassment, such a tactic can be used to further demean a victim and convince them that the treatment they are experiencing either is all in their head or is something that they deserve.
As mentioned previously, any kind of aggressive behavior should be treated as a great big red flag for workplace harassment. It's usually the easiest identifying characteristic to pick up on and is usually a sign that something is up. It can also be subtle, as not all instances of aggression will include yelling and screaming at a person.8 A harasser may exhibit aggression through things like their body language (e.g. posture, facial expression) or through actions like slamming their hands on their desk or hitting a wall. There may be some ties to behaviors like coercion, intimidation, and criticism which are common in harassment. In some cases, a harasser or victim may be aggressive due to mood swings that come about due to stress over the situation.
Sexually Explicit Behaviors
As sexual harassment is often the only kind of harassment that people think occurs in the workplace (spoiler: it's not), it would be unwise to not include sexually explicit behaviors on this list. Many identifying characteristics of sexual harassment are primarily going to be physical, although there are statements and visuals that can be sexually suggestive. Things like unsolicited touching (sexual in nature or otherwise), lewd gestures, requests for sexual favors, pornographic imagery, and vulgar language about a person's body are common examples of sexually explicit behaviors in harassment.9 These actions may not initially begin as something outright sexual, but they can escalate quickly. For example, a compliment or a friendly touch (e.g. a congratulatory pat on the back or arm) can be seen as an invitation for more by some harassers to cross boundaries and go further, even if that's not the case from the victim's perspective.10
- Quid Pro Quo in Workplace Harassment
- The Prevalence of Industry and Occupations in Workplace Harassment
- Taking Action when Preventing Workplace Harassment
- Additional Resources on the Topic of Workplace Harassment
- Workplace Harassment Forms: Discrimination
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