The Definition of Workplace Harassment?

There are thousands of issues that a person may encounter in a professional setting, regardless of the field they work in. These issues can range from minor to major and everything in between. While there is nothing that guarantees a person or their workplace will encounter every possible issue-or even any issue-that does not mean that those issues should be discounted. They can still pose a problem regardless of their severity or who is affected by them.

One of the most significant of those issues, and unfortunately one of the most prevalent, is workplace harassment. Almost everyone has encountered it at some point in their careers, even if it was not directed at them or if they were fully aware of its occurrence. If you have any intent of working with others in any kind of environment, then you need to be aware of workplace harassment and what it entails. Understanding the circumstances that allow it to occur and thrive, who is impacted by instances, and what actions CAN be taken when it happens can be incredibly beneficial to everyone involved. Such information will be outlined in this article.

  The Many Forms

Since there are quite a few forms that workplace harassment can take on, there are several definitions as to what harassment is. Legally, harassment is defined as a type of discrimination that occurs in violation of any of the following laws: the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and/or the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990.1 It is accepted as any kind of behavior or conduct that is deemed unwelcome and is based on demographic elements (race, sex, orientation, etc.). Those whose actions towards others line up with that definition can face legal consequences, as workplace harassment is illegal.

Contrary to what some people may think, harassment is not things like annoyances, petty slights, or when someone cracks a joke that you happen to be the butt of. The exception is when such instances are escalated to the point of intimidation or hostility, or when there is severe harm. An example would be if said joke was intended to demean you in some way-again, if it's derogatory or discriminatory in nature then it can be harmful towards those of a particular demographic. It may also be considered harassment if someone took a non-harassment action or statement and acted upon it, e.g. incendiary comments that motivate a person to do something harmful.

Workplace harassment isn't isolated to a particular form that it manifests in. Direct verbal and physical harassment is common, and is often what people look for when they try to identify cases of workplace harassment. Sexual harassment is also another common form that people tend to recognize much more easily than other forms. Other forms can include abuses of seniority, retaliation, unexplained hostility, visuals (derogatory posters or images), intimidation, and environmentally-based.2 There can also be a combination of different forms. Essentially, harassment can come in any form(s) where the intent is to make a person feel uncomfortable and possibly even unsafe in their workplace by another person. Just because an instance of harassment does not meet the textbook qualifications of a particular form does not mean that it is not harassment or that it is not illegal.

The parties involved in cases of workplace harassment are equally as varied; the roles of harasser and victim are not set in stone. Harassment can occur between those of differing levels of authority (e.g. supervisor and employee), amongst peers of equal status, agents of a different department (regardless of rank), and even between employees and non-employees.3 Traditional power dynamics can impact who plays what role, but it is not unheard of for a person of seniority to be harassed by someone who is considered their junior. Those who are not being harassed, but who may witness the harassment or be otherwise related to the situation, can also be impacted by it.

Interested in learning more? Why not take an online Preventing Workplace Harassment course?

  Statistics And Prevalence 

As mentioned at the start of the article, harassment is an unfortunately common occurrence in the workplace. In their study of harassment in the workplace, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) found that there were over 28,000 allegation charges reported to the EEOC in 2016 were related to workplace harassment.4 That's about a third of the total amount of discrimination charges that were reported to the EEOC in the same year. Of those reported that year, 6,741 were from federal employees, totaling about 43% of any kind of complaint (harassment and non-harassment) made on the federal level for 2015.5 While a large portion of that number was sexual harassment-which is quite possibly the most well-documented and researched form-there were also cases of racial and ethnic harassment, and an increase in cases of harassment towards workers who were LGBT.6

It should be noted that the EEOC is only able to account for cases of workplace harassment that were actually reported. Harassment of any kind frequently goes unreported due to fears of further harassment, retaliation, or attempts at downplaying what has or is happening. In some cases, a person may not realize that what has or is happening to them is harassment and that something can be done about it. The EEOC estimates that an average of three out of four victims of harassment fail to report the harassment or talk with any authority figure (e.g. supervisor) about the situation.7 Understandably, the actual numbers regarding workplace harassment may be significantly higher that what is found in the data as a result. The data may never be close to the actual numbers due to reporting failures and what is known may be just the tip of the iceberg for the whole situation.

  •          Is There Any One Demographic That Is Impacted The Most?-While workplace harassment can happen to anyone regardless of their demographic or profession, there are some groups that tend to see more instances than others. Statistically speaking, women are reportedly the victims of harassment more frequently than their male peers. This is most likely due to the fact that most of the documented data regarding workplace harassment is on sexual harassment, which has a wide report rate of 25-85%.8 Non-sexual harassment, but harassment that still involves gender in some way, also may be responsible for that frequency as past surveys have reported that around 60% of women have reported such harassment.9 For comparison, between 7% and 58% of reported cases are LGBT-related harassment and 40% and 60% are related to race- and ethnicity-based harassment. Again, this is based upon what is actually reported and certain professions may have different rates.

     Why Should You Care?

    When the topic of workplace harassment is brought up, it is inevitable that someone will question why they should pay any attention to it-especially if they are not someone who would typically be harassed in the first place. There isn't a guarantee that harassment will ever happen in a workplace, but there also isn't a guarantee that it won't happen either. The seriousness of harassment in the workplace means that it should be something that you care about no matter who you are. Since instances of workplace harassment seem to be increasing, both in frequency and severity, the need for people to care about and pay attention to workplace harassment is more important than ever.

    From a business standpoint, issues caused by harassment in the workplace are numerous and can those outside of the situation. For one, the legal aspects of harassment can be costly-litigation damage for sexual harassment frequently range from $50,000-$300,000 per case under law.10 That doesn't account for other lawsuits that victims may file directly at their harasser or at the company separately from any charges brought by official channels. Places where harassment is frequent can have their public reputation impacted, as it suggests that not only is the company a good, safe place to work, but that it may be a bit lapsed in other legal areas. A poor reputation regarding certain issues can be enough for customers and clients to avoid or boycott products and services from that company, leading to a financial loss in profit and sales.

    Instances of prolonged or frequent harassment can impact the atmosphere of the working environment, which can impact the mental state of employees while they work. In many cases, harassment makes it difficult for workers to be productive and impedes their ability to work together well. The quality of their work can also decrease significantly if there is mental and/or emotional stress caused by things in the workplace. Conditions like anxiety, depression, and stress-related disorders can develop as a result, which can impact worker's physical health in addition to their mental health.11 Workplaces made hostile due to harassment also tend to have a high turnover rate, since people will leave jobs when they don't feel safe. Accumulation of these things can ultimately impact a person's career path, both within the company they work for and in their profession.12

    Those who are not directly involved in cases of harassment can be brought into the situation, especially when the harasser is in a position of seniority. Co-workers of victims who are being harassed by their supervisor or managers often begin to lose trust in that supervisor as a result. Some may not speak up or even be pressured into joining in on the harassment out of fear of becoming victims themselves. The harasser may feel like their actions are validated and accepted in such instances, and their behavior may intensify and worsen the situation overall. That can include going after more victims. A general sense of distrust and disloyalty can develop between co-workers who fail to act and the victim(s) of the harassment.

     What Can Be Done? -Can Anything Be Done?

    Workplace harassment can seem like an unstoppable force to reckon with. You may think that there is nothing that can be done on any level, let alone by your own actions. However that is not at all true; it depends primarily on when you choose to take action and what actions you choose to take. The execution of actions taken against harassment in any why is crucial to the success of efforts. It's not an impossible task, just one that needs to be addressed with care and consideration. Some options that you may have can include:

  •          Education and Training-People cannot effectively respond to cases of workplace harassment if they do not have the proper knowledge to do so. Education that details the identifying markers of harassment, how to act when it's witnessed, and how it should be handled when it does happen can be incredibly useful. Training employees about harassment is fairly common in today's professional world, although many people view harassment training to be an inconvenience or a joke. There are several different methods of harassment education and training out there,  that it is possible to find an option that works best for you, your employees/co-workers, and your work.
  •          Prevention Measures-The entire purpose of this article is to teach you how to prevent workplace harassment from happening, so of course prevention measures are going to be an option to take against harassment. What those prevention measures will entail will vary based on the work environment and the profession you are in. 
  •          Reporting Systems-The lack of reporting in regards to instances of harassment is a serious issue, and there is the potential that a solid and safe reporting system could make a significant difference. Establishing an effective reporting system may not curb workplace harassment entirely, but it can help in addressing instances and provide help to victims. It's an opportunity for a business to prove that they take harassment seriously and to show that it will not be tolerated. In many cases where harassment occurs despite prevention measures, it's an opportunity to make improvements.