Table of Contents

Table of Contents

Take care of your people and protect your business

Harassment and discrimination are most often talked about from the standpoint of compliance and risk to the organization if the behavior exists. These issues are more than that—they are relational, interpersonal, and organizational cultural problems that require a deeper dive.

What Is Workplace Harassment?

Workplace harassment, according to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, is a form of employment discrimination that 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). It is an unwelcome conduct that is based on race, color, religion, sex (including sexual orientation, gender identity, or pregnancy), national origin, older age (beginning at age 40), disability, or genetic information (including family medical history).

Behavior that may be considered harassment is unlawful behavior when the target feels like it is a condition of employment, or it is so severe or pervasive enough that a reasonable person would consider it intimidating, hostile and abusive.

In many workplaces, behavior that feels intimidating, hostile or abusive is frequent but not openly discussed or reported. It’s been said that, “only unreasonable people report harassment” due to the very real fear of retaliation. Any level of negative behavior, from incivility or rudeness up to bullying and harassment, creates a toxic and destructive environment.

Types of Workplace Harassment

Workplace harassment is usually the result of a pattern of repeated behavior, but it can also result from a single incident if it has a significant and long-term impact. Examples of harassment can be categorized as follows:

Physical conduct:

  • Blocking movement
  • Getting into the personal space of others
  • Aggressive body language or facial expressions
  • Inappropriate touching, such as kissing or groping
  • Offensive gestures

Verbal conduct:

  • Teasing, insults, and offensive jokes
  • Intimidating/abusive phone calls, emails, texts or social media posts
  • Comments including racial slurs, that are sexual in nature, or that make fun of a particular religion, disability, etc.
  • Name calling
  • Spreading rumors

Nonverbal or visual conduct:

  • Leering or ogling
  • Inappropriate or humiliating logos, words or pictures on clothes, posters, or computer screens (e.g., sexual jokes or making fun of a particular group of people)
  • Sending YouTube or other inappropriate video clips

Sabotage:

  • Withholding opportunities such as promotions, bonuses or training
  • Pointing out mistakes in front of others; public shaming
  • Giving incomplete information or impossible workloads that create opportunity to fail rather than succeed
  • Using the performance evaluation process to claim poor performance without providing resources or support

Workplace harassment doesn’t just make the target feel uncomfortable or unsafe, witnesses also experience these feelings. Harassment leaves everyone feeling confused and anxious, and can lead to depression, psychosomatic symptoms and even post-traumatic stress disorder.

When someone famous is held responsible for harassment at work or simply caught in the act, it gets everyone’s attention. But most workplace harassment stories are merely pushed under the carpet.

Let’s look at some of the most common reasons for this detrimental silence.

Why Targets of Harassment Keep Quiet

Being harassed creates feelings of vulnerability for the target, and fear of retaliation from the perpetrator and/or the organization if reported.

Muted Group Theory

This theory describes how the dominant group contributes to the formulation of language, and members of subordinate groups then have to learn and use the dominant group’s language to express themselves. For example, because men are the dominant group, women must find ways to express themselves using “men’s language” (i.e., exclude emotion, unconscious bias telling us that women are not as valuable as men at work) even though they aren’t men, and thus have to go through a translation process when communicating. Thus, women are “muted” and may not be able to truly express what happened or how they feel about it in a way that a male-dominated workplace would understand.

Additionally, many members of the workforce may not understand their rights or do not know who they should turn to for help when they experience harassment. If the dominant group doesn’t see harassment or discrimination as a problem because they don’t see or understand what the underrepresented groups exeperience, then they wouldn’t go out of their way to ensure the workforce has the right resources.

Popular Discourse Within a Group

Inside an organization, logical and rational conversation is generally more valued than emotional and relational discourse. Talk about winning and victory are encouraged, while admitting that you feel like a target is not. To share feelings or accusations of harassment, employees must go against company culture and society’s norms at work. In other words, they must get vulnerable and emotional—behaviors generally frowned upon at work.

Our Identities Are Tied to Our Work

Most of us would rather share stories of our victories and accomplishments, as those stories are in line with our preferred identities. So being a “victim” of harassment goes against what most of us would like to accept about ourselves or put out there for the world to see.

Linguistic Micro Practices Discourage Speaking Up

Many common types of communication discourage harassment targets from speaking up.

  • Comments like, “You’re just being sensitive,” disqualify the target’s voice or concerns.
  • Neutralization hides values. The current status quo is that harassment is common and so we subconsciously see it as inevitable… it’s bound to happen according to society and the conversations around it. Society pretends to be shocked when it’s in the news, but we also elect government officials who are consistently accused of this behavior or watch movies created by the likes of Harvey Weinstein. (How many of us actually boycott movies Weinstein was involved in?) To neutralize bad behaviors, or separate ourselves from them, means that although we may show disgust in the moment via a social media comment or gossip in the hallways at work, for example, we don’t actually take action to show our real disdain for bad behavior. We, as a society, see bad behavior as neutral because it’s what we expect. It’s inevitable, after all.
  • Power also plays a role in neutralization. We know powerful people will almost certainly take advantage of less powerful people—it’s inevitable and it happens all the time—so we just accept it. This attitude stomps out morality: although harassment goes against our values, it is, after all, inevitable.

Previous Experiences

Reporting harassment is upsetting the status-quo; if a member of your workforce has spoken up in the past and was either ignored or retaliated against, then they most likely won’t do it again. Time and again, HR receives a complaint, the complaint is addressed with the individual, yet the behavior continues. Naturally the person who complained assumes nothing happened because the behavior hasn’t ended, and therefore comes to believe the behavior is tolerated by the organization. HR must get better at staying on the complaint and the poor behavior until it recedes and disappears.

How You Can Prevent Workplace Harassment

First and foremost, every employer is required by federal (and possibly state) law to create an environment free from harassment. Beyond that, it is every employer’s moral obligation to their workforce to create an environment that is respectful and thriving.

Communicate the Organization’s Commitment to a Harassment-Free Workplace

Many employers require their newly hired staff to sign a special acknowledgement of receipt of the organization’s anti-harassment policy. This is a great start, but it shouldn’t stop there. Employers should openly discuss with new hires what harassment is, what to do if it occurs, and the ways in which the organization protects targets.

While some states require ongoing anti-harassment training for the workforce, that isn’t enough. Preventing harassment requires creating an organizational culture that doesn’t tolerate it, which means ongoing training on topics like intercultural communication, unconscious bias, leadership, and assertiveness are helpful additions to your culture and anti-harassment initiatives.

Partner with the Organization’s Managers

Many employers see harassment as a compliance issue—it violates the law, after all. This outdated position leaves managers believing they should only lean on their HR department when harassment is an issue. If HR takes a more proactive approach by developing an ongoing partnership with managers, however, and making themselves available for any and all interpersonal issues (e.g., incivility, disrespect, conflict), HR will be able to track patterns of behavior in departments or from one individual, and can coach managers on resolving issues before they escalate to harassment.

Review and Address Risk Factors

Risk factors are things that increase the chance of developing a problem or risk, and the last 40 years of academic research on the topic of harassment finds that organizations present many risk factors. In other words, if any of the following describe your organization, your organization is at greater risk of harassment occurring among your workforce:

  • Lack of diversity (leaving underrepresented groups susceptible to bias, harassment and discrimination)
  • Placing more value on high performance and less value on respectful behavior (so that high performers are allowed to mistreat others)
  • A large group of long-time employees (who may find it hard to let in newcomers)
  • High stress environment (where burnout reduces energy available for civility)
  • Managers not coaching employees who engage in poor behavior (allowing the behavior to escalate)

If these or any other risk factors are happening in your organization, a great harassment prevention measure is to make and implement a plan to reduce or eliminate them.

What to Do When Harassment Occurs

Take Complaints Seriously

When you receive a complaint from an employee, take it seriously. Your legal obligations include taking immediate steps to ensure safety and prevent the conduct from occurring further, and investigating the claim further. Don’t take for granted that this individual is showing vulnerability and trust in you. Ask open-ended questions, use open communication and active listening, discuss your next steps and timelines, and most importantly, follow up and follow up until the issue is resolved.

Investigate the Allegation

Once you’re made aware of the complaint, you must speak to the alleged perpetrator to gain their side of the story. If it is clear they behaved inappropriately, then you can address the situation accordingly. If what happened remains unclear, it’s important to hire an outside workplace investigator to find out the facts. Keep in mind the alleged behavior is unlawful, and once the complaint is made you are under legal obligation to determine if the unlawful behavior actually occurred.

Take Appropriate Action

If an investigation reveals that the unlawful behavior did in fact occur, you should take action in line with the level of behavior and in line with your current anti-harassment policy. If you have a zero-tolerance policy, any harassment no matter how big or small results in termination of employment. If your policy leaves room for people to make mistakes, it may be that a smaller behavior such as a one-time joke results in a final warning while a bigger behavior such as an inappropriate touch results in termination of employment.

How Commonplace Is Workplace Harassment?

Workplace harassment isn’t always easy to identify or deal with. High-profile harassment issues seem to hit the headlines and often seem to be fairly clear cut (e.g., the perpetrator did in fact say or do something over and over again that is clearly sexual harassment). But what about the problems with harassment that employees deal with on a daily basis?

Many, many surveys have been conducted in order to understand the prevalence of harassment. The findings have ranged anywhere from 38%-85% of the workforce experiencing harassment at some point in their life. Let’s look at one such survey, the 2018 Hiscox Workplace Harassment Study:

  • While reported harassers were typically men (78%) and employees in senior positions (73%), other patterns also emerged. For example, 17% of survey respondents reported vendors or clients as harassers. The employer is still liable even if the harassment comes from outside of the organization.
  • 45% of respondents had witnessed the harassment of a co-worker.
  • 53% of employees who experienced harassment were so afraid that they didn’t report the behavior.
  • 46% of employees said fear of retaliation was the main reason for not reporting. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) found the fear of retaliation to be the main reason in their research as well.
  • Both large and small companies had the same percentage of employees who claimed to be on the receiving end of harassment: a whopping 32%.
  • Between 2010 and 2017, employers paid out over $1 billion to settle harassment claims filed with the EEOC.
  • Out of the employees surveyed, 46% of Millennials reported being harassed, which was the highest of the age groups.

Harassment can happen to anyone in any organization. While there are generalities around harassers and organizational risk factors that can foster a culture of harassment, harassment and toxic behaviors are not exclusive. If you’re thinking your business is too small to have a harassment problem, or that it could never happen here, think again.

We can only end a problem that has been allowed to fester for far too long by speaking out and taking action. Every employee has the right to work in a setting that is free from intimidation and humiliation so that they can perform at their highest level and support the success of the team. All forms of workplace harassment must be acknowledged, and they must not be tolerated.

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Questions You’ve Asked Us About Workplace Harassment

Sexual harassment is the most common type of unlawful harassment. This is harassment based on gender, gender identity, sex (including pregnancy), sexual orientation, or gender expression.

Keep in mind however, that truly the most common type of harassment is lawful, covert behavior that causes harm. For example, poking fun at someone regularly or annoyed eye rolls when someone speaks aren’t unlawful, but they are hurtful and are the impetus for worse behavior down the line. Employees should be given tools to address these smaller, yet harmful situations to keep them from escalating to more overt, unlawful behavior in the future.

No. Federal and state laws do not make teasing, rude comments and other such “lower level” behaviors unlawful. Even one instance of harassing conduct is not unlawful unless it is very serious, such as a physical assault. However, all harassing behavior has the potential to create a demoralized and fear-based culture that will harm the workforce and the organization in the long run. 

No. Federal law protects workers both on and off site, as well as before, during and after work. For example, pressure for a date while at a happy hour with co-workers can constitute harassment.

In short, not much. When you consider the definition of harassment—enduring the behavior feels like a condition of employment OR the conduct is severe or pervasive enough that a reasonable person would consider it intimidating, hostile or abusive—this describes workplace bullying too. If someone harasses a variety of protected characteristics (e.g., equal-opportunity harassment) that behavior is legal. Only when that harassment is pointed at a group based on their race, religion, sexual orientation, disability, or other characteristic, does it become unlawful behavior, called harassment. 

The founder of Civility Partners, Catherine Mattice, MA, SPHR, SHRM-SCP, is a Strategic HR Consultant who assists organizations in building positive cultures through HR practices. Catherine is a widely recognized thought-leader, and she is passionate about employers’ responsibility to create the opportunity and environment for employees to thrive. Clients include Fortune 500’s to government to small business – she’s served almost every industry you can think of. She’s appeared on or in NPR, CNN, USA Today, Forbes, and more as an expert and is a best-selling author of three books.

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