What Is Workplace Harassment?

Definition

Workplace harassment is unwelcome conduct from a supervisor, coworker, or non-employee based on your sex, race, religion, or another protected status. Such offensive conduct may be unlawful if it becomes a condition of continued employment or creates a hostile work environment.

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Key Takeaways

  • Workplace harassment is unwelcome conduct that demeans, insults, or offends another employee. 
  • The victim is the person being harassed, as well as anyone impacted by the offensive conduct.
  • Federal laws prohibit the harassment of individuals based on race, sex, religion, and other protected characteristics if you have to endure the harassment to keep your job, or if it creates a hostile work environment.
  • If you believe you’re a victim of workplace harassment, tell a supervisor and follow your employer's anti-harassment policy. You may also want to file a charge with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).

How Does Workplace Harassment Work?

Workplace harassment is unwelcome speech or conduct based on an individual’s race, sex, religion, political affliliation, or other protected status.Work-based harassment can begin at the interview stage or after you begin working at the company. The harasser may be a supervisor, but also could be a co-worker, vendor, or customer.

According to the EEOC, workplace harassment is illegal when either of the following conditions are met:

  • If you don’t put up with the offensive and unwanted actions, communication, or behavior, you could lose your job.
  • The behavior is severe and pervasive enough to create a work environment that a reasonable person would consider intimidating, hostile, or abusive.

Note

Workplace harassment violates Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 (ADEA), and the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA).

Examples of Harassment

Here are some examples of workplace harassment:

  • Unwelcome sexual advances
  • Offensive jokes, stories, or name-calling
  • Any kind of abusive behavior, including threats of violence
  • Offensive drawings or pictures

Types of Workplace Harassment

Workplace harassment is always wrong, but it becomes unlawful when it’s based on race, sex, age, religion, or any other protected class. There are two main types of illegal workplace harassment: quid pro quo harassment and harassment that creates a hostile work environment.

Quid Pro Quo

“Quid pro quo” means that if you don’t accept the harassment, you could be subject to a “tangible employment action,” such as being fired, demoted, denied a promotion, or getting an undesirable reassignment. The employer is always liable for harassment that results in tangible employment action.

Hostile Workplace Environment

Another effect of ongoing workplace harassment is that it is severe and pervasive enough to create a work environment that a reasonable person would find hostile. A hostile work environment is one that is offensive or intimidating to the person being harassed and/or others in the workplace.

Note

Mild teasing, offhand comments, or one-off incidents that are not extremely serious are not considered illegal.

What To Do If You Face or Witness Workplace Harassment

If you are experiencing harassment in the workplace, you can start by telling the person harassing you to stop. But that’s only a good idea if you feel comfortable and safe doing so.

If the inappropriate behavior continues, your next step is to consult your employer’s anti-harassment policy and follow the steps outlined in it. If there is no policy, you can ask a supervisor or someone from human resources for help.

Many people don’t deal with ongoing harassment because they fear retaliation, but the law is on your side. You have the right to report workplace harassment, and it’s illegal for your employer to retaliate against you for doing so.

One option is to file a discrimination charge with the EEOC, which is a signed statement saying that your employer discriminated against you. You have to do this before you can file a discrimination suit against your employer. You typically have 180 days to file a charge, although this can vary depending on state laws.

Other Resources for Protection Against Harassment

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

What is considered workplace harassment?

Harassment is any unwelcome conduct based on an individual’s race, religion, sex, or age. The harasser could be a supervisor, co-worker, or a non-employee. The victim is the person being harassed and anyone who’s negatively impacted by the harassment.

Depending on the nature of the harassment, it could violate one or more federal laws. Workplace harassment becomes illegal when the offensive behavior either becomes a condition of employment or it creates a hostile work environment.

What are examples of harassment?

Sexual harassment is a common example of workplace harassment. It includes unwanted sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and any other inappropriate verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature. This behavior can become an implicit or explicit condition of employment, with rejection of the behavior used as a reason for termination.

What is the most common form of harassment?

Sexual harassment is the most common form of harassment. And “gender harassment” is by far the most common type of sexual harassment. It involves sexist comments or crude behavior that don’t involve sexual interest. For example, a woman may be harassed for taking a job typically held by a man, or a man may be called names for violating male stereotypes.

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Sources
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  1. U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. “Harassment.”

  2. North Carolina Office of State Human Resources. “A Reference for Supervisors.” Page 3.

  3. U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. “Questions & Answers for Small Employers on Employer Liability for Harassment by Supervisors.”

  4. U.S. Department of Labor. “What Do I Need To Know About … Workplace Harassment.”

  5. U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. “Facts About Retaliation.”

  6. U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. “What You Should Know: What To Do if You Believe You Have Been Harassed at Work.”

  7. Pima County Government Human Resources Dept. “Understanding & Preventing Workplace/Sexual Harrassment.”

  8. National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. “Sexual Harassment of Women: Climate, Culture, and Consequences in Academic Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine.” National Academies Press, 2018.

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