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Workplace Harassment

Workplace Harassment: Definition, Examples, and Prevention!


The dynamics of the world have changed lately. Things considered shameful to disclose are now considered as strengths. Today’s world is a result of a number of revolutions and movements where “MeToo” movement being one of the most recent ones has had a profound impact on people’s thinking patterns. Some people are still skeptical in their views but many individuals have openly started talking about workplace offensive conduct. This practice is prevalent but many employees are not aware of what is workplace harassment leading to a large number of cases going unreported and even unnoticed. This creates a toxic workplace.

This article talks about workplace harassment definitions and workplace harassment examples. Workplace harassment is often misunderstood as bullying and discrimination, so this article clarifies this difference. You can learn about the types of workplace harassment and lastly, it gives some associated risk factors and the prevention measures.

Key Takeaways

  • Workplace harassment is a form of employment discrimination that creates a hostile environment.
  • It encompasses various forms of mistreatment, including physical, verbal, and psychological actions.
  • Differentiating between harassment, bullying, and discrimination is crucial for understanding legal implications.
  • Risk factors contributing to workplace harassment include power imbalances, cultural diversity, and remote work settings.
  • Workplace harassment can have detrimental impacts on emotional well-being, productivity, legal matters, and physical health.
  • Prevention measures, such as implementing policies and reporting procedures, are essential for fostering a safe workplace environment.

What is Workplace Harassment?

The Occupational Health and Safety Act (OHSA) outlines workplace harassment definition as “engaging in a course of vexatious comment or conduct against a worker in a workplace that is known or ought reasonably to be known to be unwelcome”. Sexual workplace harassment is also included in the definition of OHSA.

Any physical or verbal action that sounds unwelcoming and is directed to insult, embarrass, demean, humiliate, or offend a person sexually, psychologically, or physically on a regular basis is included in workplace harassment. Such conduct includes both graphic or written material and epithets. The duration of workplace harassment can vary ranging from many times in one day to even longer periods like years. Even if it happens once only, the unwanted act still falls under the category of harassment.

The Section 26 of the Equality Act 2010 defines harassment as any unwanted conduct of one person against another to violate his dignity or create an offensive environment prone to hostility, intimidation, deprivation, and humiliation. It also characterizes any act of sexual nature or sex or gender reassignment directed at encroaching upon the self-esteem of a person that falls under the workplace harassment definition.

Workplace Harassment Examples

Any act of the employer or colleagues that causes emotional distress can be taken as a workplace harassment example. It can appear in the form of unwanted physical touch, remarks, targeting a protected class, or jokes. Anything prejudiced or violent against one’s gender (denying a leadership role based on sexual characteristics), age (passing over an older employee for a promotion in favor of a younger candidate), religion (making derogatory remarks about their religious practices), race, nation, or ethnicity (making offensive jokes about someone’s cultural background), sexuality (spreading rumors about someone’s sexual orientation), and disability (failing to provide reasonable accommodations) are workplace harassment examples.

Risk Factors for Workplace Harassment

A number of risk factors for workplace harassment are impacting individuals and organizations. Some of these include a uniform workforce, predominantly young workforce, cultural and linguistic diversity in the workplace, workplaces with “high-value” employees, deteriorating social discourse outside the workplace, remote or isolated workplaces, workplaces dependent on customer service or client satisfaction, dispersed or decentralized workplaces, workplaces where some employees deviate from workplace norms, workplaces that permit or promote alcohol consumption, workplaces with repetitive tasks or low-intensity work, and workplaces with notable power imbalances.

Workplace Harassment and Bullying

Workplace harassment and bullying are quite common and similar concepts but we can differentiate them based on their severity and legality. Workplace bullying can be defined as any harmful act on a repetitive basis that inflicts psychological power imbalance between the victim and perpetrator. If it is not addressed timely, it can become harassment and harassment will have certain legal aspects.

Another angle to differentiate workplace harassment and bullying is its legal perspective. Bullying is not illegal but harassment is. Some states still tolerate workplace bullying but it varies from state to state. For instance, the Equality Act 2010 of the United Kingdom declares harassment to be unlawful. According to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), the law interferes if workplace harassment is related to sexual orientation, race, marriage, disability, pregnancy, religion, gender reassignment, sex, maternity, age, civil partnership, or belief.

Likewise, workplace harassment and bullying are categorized differently under the Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 in the United States Code. It categorizes both discriminatory practices and sexual harassment under legal implications. According to this, religion, sexual orientation, skin color, age, gender, nationality, etc. should not be used as tools of discrimination by employers, otherwise, the offender will be subjected to legal action.

Workplace Harassment and Discrimination

Workplace harassment and discrimination are often used interchangeably but they are distinct concepts with varied legal inferences. Workplace discrimination entails biased behavior with an employee based on a protected characteristic in areas such as recruitment, compensation, termination, and advancement. Although workplace harassment is a form of discrimination, it is not the sole method by which discrimination occurs in the workplace.

Both of these concepts refer to maltreatment at the workplace but they have key differences. Workplace harassment places more emphasis on the creation of a hostile workplace environment based on unwanted conduct but workplace discrimination has worse impacts than only impacting the environment. It can result in hostile employment acts like firing someone because of the protected characteristics or denial of promotion.

Furthermore, another difference between workplace harassment and discrimination is related to protected characteristics. Workplace harassment has legal implications that are valid only in the case if it is grounded on protected characteristics. Workplace discrimination is not only focused on protected characteristics but can also have other reasons for doing the action.

Under certain conditions, workplace harassment and discrimination can intersect. For instance, if an employee with a disability is consistently assigned less challenging tasks despite their qualifications and capabilities, this could be viewed as both workplace harassment (creating a hostile environment by undermining their skills) and workplace discrimination.

Types of Workplace Harassment

The main causes of workplace harassment are usually power imbalances and gender inequality between employees. A few types of workplace harassment include:

  • Physical harassment (physical abuse, inappropriate touching, sexual assault)
  • Verbal and non-verbal harassment (verbal harassment, inappropriate gestures, demeaning remarks, sexual or offensive jokes)
  • Psychological and Emotional Harassment (psychological harassment, bullying, power harassment)
  • Discriminatory Harassment (discrimination, disability harassment, gender harassment, marital status, genetic information harassment, age harassment)
  • Cyber Harassment
  • Sexual Harassment (quid pro quo)
  • Personal harassment
  • Retaliation

Impacts of Workplace Harassment

Workplace harassment is a tenacious concern as it is drastically impacting employees across a wide net of industries and businesses. These detrimental impacts of workplace harassment include:

  • Emotional Impacts (feeling isolated and losing self-esteem and confidence)
  • Psychological Impacts (high levels of anxiety, stress, depression, and low levels of job satisfaction and productivity)
  • Legal Impacts (time-consuming and drained energy)
  • Financial Impacts (legal battles are financially burdensome for employees and financial penalties for employers)
  • Professional Growth (missed opportunities, reluctance to report incidents out of the fear of professional reputation, limited career prospects, and avoiding leadership roles)
  • Physical Health (headaches, sleep disturbance, and gastrointestinal issues)

Preventing Workplace Harassment

Employees are an asset of an organization, so the organization should take measures to safeguard them. If workplace harassment creates an uncomfortable environment then the productivity of employees will be diminished. Thereby, workplaces should work to prevent workplace harassment with a zero-tolerance policy. The employer is responsible for any act of workplace harassment and he will bear the legal implications for this so it is suggested to all employers to set up policies to protect the employees. These policies should be in written form, accessible to all, and reviewed after every year.

Workplace harassment programs can also be included in the written form as an act of prevention from any unwanted action. These programs can have guidelines teaching workers about the investigative process of harassment complaints. They can also include procedures for registering complaints and reporting incidents of harassment. It can also inform workers about the corrective actions taken after the product of inquiry to prevent workplace harassment in the future.

If you know any colleague facing workplace harassment then you can help him with the 5Ds method to escape from the situation. The 5Ds include Direct (confronting the harasser directly), Delay (keep checking on the one being harassed), Document (keeping a record of harassment), Delegate (involving the third party), and Distract (ignoring the one who harassed).


Workplace harassment is an umbrella term referring to unwanted and inappropriate actions by one member against another to hurt his dignity and to turn the environment hostile. It poses significant challenges to employees and organizations, impacting emotional well-being, productivity, and legal matters. By recognizing its various forms, implementing preventative measures, and fostering a culture of respect, workplaces can mitigate the negative effects of harassment and promote a healthier, more inclusive environment. Employers should consider its prevention necessary to avoid facing unwanted consequences.

Frequently Asked Questions About Workplace Harassment

  1. What is workplace harassment?

Workplace harassment is defined as engaging in a course of vexatious comment or conduct against a worker in a workplace that is known or ought reasonably to be known to be unwelcome. It takes account of any physical or verbal action that is directed to insult, embarrass, demean, humiliate, or offend a person.

  1. What are workplace harassment examples?

Workplace harassment examples include unwanted physical touch, spreading rumors about someone’s sexual orientation, failing to provide reasonable accommodations for a disability, and derogatory remarks about someone’s religion, making offensive jokes about someone’s cultural background.

  1. How does workplace harassment differ from workplace bullying?

Workplace harassment encompasses unwanted conduct that is based on a protected characteristic and forms an unfriendly work environment, which can have legal implications. Workplace bullying, while similar in its repetitive and detrimental nature, does not essentially involve a protected characteristic and is not illegal in all jurisdictions.

  1. What are the legal protections against workplace harassment?

Every state has its own laws providing protection against workplace harassment. For instance, the Equality Act 2010 in the UK and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 in the US prohibit harassment based on characteristics like sex, religion, race, and disability. These laws obligate employers to prevent and address harassment by crafting policies and programs.

  1. What are the impacts of workplace harassment?

Workplace harassment has effects on all domains of life. It can lead to emotional impacts such as isolation and loss of self-esteem, psychological impacts like anxiety, depression, and stress, financial impacts with penalties for employers, hindered professional growth, legal impacts due to time-consuming and financially draining battles, and physical health issues such as headaches and sleep disturbances.

  1. How can an employer play his role in preventing workplace harassment?

Employers are responsible for establishing a zero-tolerance policy towards harassment, addressing complaints promptly, creating a safe work environment, and ensuring that all employees are aware of and comprehend the anti-harassment policies and actions.

  1. How can workplaces prevent harassment?

Prevention measures include implementing and regularly reviewing anti-harassment policies, providing training programs, establishing clear reporting procedures, and creating a supportive environment that encourages reporting and addresses complaints promptly.

  1. How can employees support colleagues facing workplace harassment?

Employees can support their colleagues by using the 5D method: Directly confronting the harasser, Documenting the harassment, Delaying by checking on the person being harassed, Delegating by involving a third party, and Distracting to defuse the situation.

  1. In what way a person can be harassed at the workplace?

There are various types of workplace harassment by which a person can be harassed. It includes physical harassment (physical abuse, inappropriate touching, sexual assault), psychological and emotional harassment (psychological harassment, bullying, power harassment), verbal and non-verbal harassment (verbal harassment, inappropriate gestures, demeaning remarks, cyber harassment, and sexual harassment (quid pro quo)sexual or offensive jokes), and discriminatory harassment (disability harassment, gender harassment, age harassment).

  1. What are the main risk factors for workplace harassment?

Risk factors for workplace harassment include power imbalances, uniform workforce, high-value employees, a predominantly young workforce, cultural and linguistic diversity, dependency on customer satisfaction, deteriorating social discourse, remote or isolated workplaces, decentralized workplaces, deviations from workplace norms, repetitive tasks, and promotion of alcohol consumption.

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