Harassment in the Workplace

Attrition & Retention

Harassment in the Workplace

Unfortunately, workplace harassment is too often a common occurrence and although most of us are familiar with the terminology, we do not always understand what it means in a legal capacity. So, before going any further, it might be pertinent to define what we mean by workplace harassment. Here we do not only refer to sexual harassment but also other types of unlawful harassment to create a basic understanding. For example:

  • offensive conduct,
  • creating a hostile work environment,
  • harassment related to a person’s sexual orientation or race,
  • physical assaults on co-workers,
  • repeated offensive jokes, and
  • other types of verbal harassment, or
  • physical harassment.
Harassment in the Workplace Harassment in the Workplace

What Does Harassment in the Workplace Entail?

Workplace harassment is not something that only HR professionals need to understand. It is something that can happen to anyone. When it happens, you can benefit from knowing how to handle the situation and how to gather and present the necessary proof to substantiate your case. It is unfortunate that, in many cases, workplace harassment is difficult to prove, but regardless, reporting workplace harassment is still vital. It is, therefore, essential to understand what is considered physical harassment and what is considered verbal harassment, and how to make a case when you are experiencing workplace harassment.

In order for something to be considered harassment, it must meet the following criteria*:

  • There has to be a certain level of severity or persistence for it to be accepted in a court. One request for sexual favors or offensive conduct is not enough for court action (although an HR department might step in). Workplace harassment generally needs to create a hostile work environment to the extent that it is interfering with a person’s ability to do their job.
  • Offensive behavior has to be unwelcome behavior. Sexual harassment cannot be claimed if both parties were willing, as pursuing such a relationship between co-workers who are willing is not against the law, neither is inappropriate humor if none of the parties involved feel offended.
  • Where inappropriate behavior is present it must be experienced as offensive conduct. This can take many forms and might include anything from offensive jokes about a disability, racist slurs, or a demand for (quid pro quo harassment) sexual favors.
  • Any discrimination against a protected class of person is also harassment in the workplace.

*There might be some differences depending on your country.

Agencies regulating workplace conduct would only accept an allegation of unlawful harassment if all of these conditions are met, but you should be able to get help from your HR department in the meantime.

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How to Prove Harassment in the Workplace

It can be exceedingly difficult to meet all of these standards, let alone gather all of the evidence necessary to prove it. There are also many ways that harassing behavior can be denied. Reports can be brushed off as isolated incidents or misunderstandings that were not meant to be malicious. It can also be difficult to prove when you felt that your job security was jeopardized or that you experienced unwanted touching when no one else is around. These are situations that an HR department is usually prepared for, and should not deter you from reporting uncomfortable situations.

When you plan to report workplace harassment, you will need to take steps to ensure that you can prove your case. The best way to achieve this is to prepare the following:

  • Find witnesses
  • Gather any evidence available
  • Establish a timeline

In order to establish a timeline, each incident needs to be recorded. All of the recordings need to be written in the same place. Adequate detail is preferred, including the time and date that the incident occurred, along with everything else about it that you can remember. If possible, you might also want to share instances with people you trust when harassment occurs. Contacting the HR department or entities like the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission can be helpful as they can provide country-specific advice.

When gathering evidence, you will need to ensure that you are doing so within your legal right. For example, some places have laws against recording someone without their consent. Always ensure that you are not breaking a law yourself in order to gather evidence.

If you are experiencing harassing behavior, it is likely that someone else in your workplace is experiencing something similar. You might want to try looking for allies, but it is best to be careful when doing this so that you do not inadvertently alert your harasser.

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Types of Workplace Harassment

There are actually a great many different types of harassment in the workplace that can be categorized and discussed. The main focus is usually on sexual harassment, but this should not overshadow other forms of harassment that occur in the workplace. Here are some of the other forms of harassment that can result in a hostile work environment:

  • A colleague or superior is making continuous demeaning comments against an employee.
  • People in positions of power make impossible demands and punish the inability to deliver on these demands.
  • Offensive conduct related to someone’s gender identity, sexual orientation, marital status, race, or any other personal attribute or belief.
  • Someone making false allegations online, or in person, that are damaging to one’s reputation and professional name.
  • Exposing colleagues or clients to offensive objects, whether sexually suggestive, or offensive by other means.
  • Any form of digital harassment.
  • Sexual jokes which make co-workers feel uncomfortable.
  • Making offensive gestures toward a co-worker or subordinate.
  • Causing severe physical harm to a colleague or subordinate.
  • General unwelcome conduct which creates a hostile environment for a co-worker or subordinate.
  • Any other form of deliberate psychological bullying.
  • Age discrimination in any form.

This is not an exhaustive list, and many other behaviors can result in a hostile work environment that constitutes workplace harassment.

Sexual Harassment

Sexual harassment is the type of harassment that we hear about most often, but that does not mean that it is the most prominent or the most harmful. Physical assaults and even psychological assaults can be equally damaging to an individual.

Anyone who has ever experienced sexual harassment understands the seriousness of the situation and would likely not ever want to experience it again. Being subject to unwelcome sexual advances in the workplace can be a traumatic experience and can have a negative impact on that person’s productivity. When a person does not feel safe at work, any reasonable person can deduce that their performance will be impacted.

The goal of any responsible business is usually to take any steps necessary to eliminate harassment completely, and should such conduct occur, to take immediate and appropriate action against offenders (after proper investigation).

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Protection Against Harassment at Work

Legal protection will depend on where you are living and working. There are laws of national origin that make specific stipulations about workplace conduct and harassment.

There is usually an Employment Act in most countries, and a Civil Rights Act of some sort, and most companies have an employee handbook based on these acts and others in your country (each country has its own laws on such matters) that stipulates the rights and responsibilities of employees and management.

In most countries, there are laws that protect workers from an offensive work environment within their job scope. An employer should ideally educate employees on such matters and encourage employees to report unwelcome conduct.

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Impact of Workplace Harassment on a Business

Any form of harassment can have devastating effects on the reputation of a business, and can cause serious economic injury. An employer is responsible for the well-being of all their employees, and when an employee complains about any form of harassment, the victim’s supervisor needs to take immediate action to try and protect that employee accordingly.

Even isolated incidents can have a negative impact as they can cause people to not feel safe in their work environment. It is, therefore, important that accusations be carefully handled and thoroughly investigated. An investigation encompasses several steps, including a records check to see if similar offenses have been recorded in the past. Harassment of a sexual nature is very serious, but should not overshadow something else like digital harassment.

Ultimately, the fight against harassment of a physical, mental, or sexual nature is an ongoing battle. Any reasonable person can see how such cases can cause damage to both employee morale and business revenue.