Harassment · · 17 min read

Workplace Harassment | Definition, Types, How To Report and Prevent

Workplace Harassment - Definition, Types, How To Report and Prevent

In today’s increasingly diverse and connected global workforce, understanding and addressing workplace harassment is more crucial than ever. Workplace harassment goes beyond the commonly perceived notions of inappropriate comments or unwanted advances. It encompasses a broad spectrum of behaviours that create a hostile or intimidating environment, undermining the victim’s safety, well-being, and overall job performance.

This guide aims to provide readers with a comprehensive understanding of workplace harassment – from its definition to its multifaceted types, the importance of reporting it, methods to do so, precautions to take, its impact on performance, and the legal framework surrounding it.

Whether you’re an employer aiming to create a safe workspace, an employee seeking to understand your rights, or simply a concerned individual, this guide offers insights into the intricacies of workplace harassment and the steps we can take to combat it.

What is Workplace Harassment? Definition

Workplace harassment refers to any unwelcome conduct, verbal, physical, or visual, based on protected characteristics such as race, gender, religion, age, sexual orientation, disability, or other legally protected status that creates an intimidating, hostile, or offensive work environment. This behaviour can stem from any individual in the workplace, including supervisors, co-workers, or non-employees.

It can manifest in various forms, such as discriminatory, personal, physical, power-based, or psychological harassment. It’s essential to note that the victim can be anyone affected by the conduct, not just the individual to whom the offensive behaviour is directed.

Workplace Harassment

What Constitutes Workplace Harassment?

Workplace harassment is a multifaceted issue that involves unwelcome behaviour, discrimination, or intimidation based on one’s race, gender, religion, age, physical or mental disability, sexual orientation, or other protected characteristics.

Here’s what typically constitutes workplace harassment:

  • Unwanted Behavior: Harassment often begins with behaviour that is unwanted by the recipient. This can be comments, jokes, physical contact, or any action that makes someone uncomfortable.
  • Frequency and Severity: One-off comments might be inappropriate or unprofessional, but repeated behaviours or particularly egregious acts can elevate them to the level of harassment. It’s about the nature and recurrence of the action.
  • Discrimination: Discriminatory harassment targets someone based on a protected characteristic. Whether it’s making fun of someone’s religious attire, using racial slurs, or making sexist comments, these behaviours are discriminatory in nature.
  • Retaliation: If an employee reports harassment or participates in an investigation and then faces negative consequences for doing so (like being demoted, given undesirable shifts, or terminated), that’s considered retaliatory harassment.
  • Sexual Harassment: This includes any unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favours, or other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature that interferes with an individual’s work performance or creates an intimidating, hostile, or offensive work environment.
  • Power Dynamics: Harassment often involves a misuse of power, where those in positions of authority exploit their status to intimidate or harm those below them.
  • Physical Harassment: Any form of physical intimidation or assault, like pushing, hitting, or unwanted touching, constitutes physical harassment.
  • Psychological Harassment: Tactics that damage an individual’s mental well-being, such as constant criticism, belittling, gaslighting, or threats, fall under this category.

It’s crucial to note that the perception of the recipient matters significantly in defining harassment. What might seem like a harmless joke to one person could be deeply offensive to another. The key is the impact on the individual and whether the behaviour creates a hostile or intimidating work environment.

Workplace Harassment Examples

10 Different Types Of Workplace Harassment

Workplace harassment refers to any unwelcome and harmful behaviour directed at an individual or a group of employees that creates a hostile, intimidating, or offensive work environment. There are several different types of workplace harassment, including:

1. Discriminatory Harassment

Discriminatory harassment emerges when individuals face undue negative attention or treatment because of their membership in a specific protected class. Such classes are legally recognized groups often singled out historically for prejudice and discrimination. The victims face disdain, bias, or prejudice primarily because they belong to these categories.

Discriminatory harassment can manifest in various ways. For instance, an employee may be the target of derogatory comments due to their ethnic background or might be excluded from corporate events because of their gender. The underlying issue here is a deep-rooted bias that is expressed overtly, leading to a hostile work environment.

2. Sexual Harassment

Sexual harassment is a pervasive problem that extends beyond simple romantic interest. It revolves around unwarranted and unwanted sexual advances, often leveraging power dynamics in the workplace. The consequences of not reciprocating these advances can sometimes be subtle, like being overlooked for a promotion, or overt, like threats of termination.

Acts constituting sexual harassment can vary from verbal comments, like making lewd remarks about one’s appearance, to physical acts, such as non-consensual touching. Additionally, displaying sexually explicit material, like inappropriate photos, can contribute to a work environment that feels intimidating and hostile.

3. Racial Harassment

Racial harassment is a specific subset of discriminatory harassment that specifically targets individuals based on their racial or ethnic identity. In a globalized world, where workplaces are becoming increasingly diverse, incidents of racial harassment can undermine unity and productivity.

A colleague making light of another’s accent, derogatory jokes about ethnic stereotypes, or the outright use of racial slurs are all instances of racial harassment. It’s not just about the overt comments; sometimes, non-verbal cues, like certain looks or exclusions based on race, can be equally damaging.

4. Religious Harassment

In a world that houses a myriad of beliefs and practices, religious harassment is unfortunately common. It happens when individuals are disrespected or treated unfairly because of their religious affiliations, beliefs, or practices. For instance, an employee may be ridiculed for taking time off for a religious holiday or be the butt of jokes because of their dietary restrictions.

Coercion, like forcing someone to participate in religious (or non-religious) rituals against their beliefs, is also a manifestation of religious harassment. At its core, it’s about disrespecting and belittling an individual’s deeply held spiritual beliefs.

5. Ability-Based Harassment

This form of harassment centres on an individual’s physical or cognitive abilities. Those with disabilities, whether visible or invisible, can be at a heightened risk of facing such prejudice.

Mocking an individual’s way of speaking due to a speech impediment, refusing to make reasonable accommodations like providing a ramp for someone in a wheelchair, or assuming someone can’t complete a task because of their disability are all examples of ability-based harassment.

Often, this form of harassment stems from ignorance, stereotypes, or a lack of understanding about the challenges faced by those with disabilities.

Different Workplace Harassment Laws

6. Age-Based Harassment

Age-based harassment primarily targets individuals because of their age, often sidelining those perceived as ‘too old’ or ‘too young’ for certain roles or responsibilities. Especially individuals over 40 might face prejudices that stereotype them as technologically backward, resistant to change, or less energetic.

These stereotypes can manifest in various workplace behaviours: colleagues making offhand remarks about one’s age, leadership assuming that older employees can’t handle newer technologies or innovations, or even subtle pressures urging older employees to consider early retirement. Such behaviours not only undermine the experience and wisdom older employees bring but can also rob younger employees of valuable mentorship opportunities.

7. Personal Harassment

At its core, personal harassment is workplace bullying but without the discriminatory intent tied to protected classes. The causes for personal harassment can be manifold – personal animosities, professional jealousies, or even extraneous issues that seep into the workplace from personal lives.

Victims of personal harassment often find themselves at the receiving end of persistent ridicule, exclusion from social groups within the workplace, or having their work constantly belittled. The absence of a discriminatory base doesn’t make this form of harassment any less destructive; it erodes trust, stifles collaboration, and can have profound psychological effects on the victim.

8. Power Harassment

The dynamics of power play an integral role in power harassment. Those in positions of authority, whether managers or supervisors misuse their position to intimidate, oppress, or exploit those lower in the hierarchy.

It can manifest in various ways: setting unrealistic expectations that are impossible to meet, assigning tasks way below an employee’s capability as a form of humiliation, or intruding into their personal lives under the guise of professional concern. Such behaviours not only tarnish the sanctity of the manager-subordinate relationship but also cultivate a culture of fear and submission.

9. Physical Harassment

Physical harassment is arguably one of the most blatant forms of workplace harassment. Unlike other forms that might be covert or subtle, physical harassment is an overt threat to an individual’s personal safety. It encompasses actions like shoving, hitting, or any form of physical intimidation. In more extreme cases, it could escalate to severe physical assaults.

The implications are manifold: the victim suffers immediate physical harm, psychological trauma, and an overarching fear that degrades the sanctity of the workplace. It’s a glaring violation of personal boundaries and a threat to one’s right to safety.

10. Psychological Harassment

Harassment isn’t always physical; often, the most lasting scars are the ones that aren’t visible. Psychological harassment targets an individual’s mental and emotional well-being. Tactics used can be varied, from persistent gaslighting (making someone doubt their reality), deliberately excluding them from groups or important meetings, constantly belittling their contributions, or setting them up for failure.

Such tactics erode an individual’s confidence, making them question their worth and place in the organization. The cascading effects of such harassment can lead to severe mental health issues, including anxiety, depression, and even post-traumatic stress.

What To Avoid When Facing Workplace Harassment

Why Reporting Workplace Harassment Is Important?

Reporting workplace harassment is crucial for a myriad of reasons, both for the individual experiencing it and for the organization as a whole. Here’s an expanded explanation:

  • Ensuring Personal Safety and Well-being: At its core, the primary reason for reporting harassment is to ensure one’s safety and mental well-being. Harassment can lead to a host of negative emotional and psychological effects, such as anxiety, depression, and diminished self-esteem. By reporting, the victim takes the first step in asserting their rights and seeking a remedy to stop the behaviour.
  • Establishing a Record: Reporting ensures that there’s an official record of the incident(s). This documentation can be invaluable if the harassment continues or escalates, as it provides tangible evidence of a pattern of behaviour. Such a record can also be critical in any subsequent investigations or legal actions.
  • Upholding Legal Rights: Many jurisdictions have laws and regulations that protect employees from workplace harassment. Reporting the behaviour ensures that victims can assert their legal rights and potentially seek remedies if the employer doesn’t address the situation appropriately.
  • Deterrence: Reporting can act as a deterrent, signalling to harassers that their behaviour is unacceptable and has consequences. This can be especially effective in organizations where swift action is taken against perpetrators, as it creates an environment where potential harassers think twice before acting inappropriately.
  • Promoting a Positive Work Environment: Harassment can erode the trust and camaraderie within a team or organization, leading to decreased morale and productivity. Reporting and addressing such behaviour can help foster a more inclusive, respectful, and positive work environment, which is beneficial for all employees.
  • Encouraging Others: When one person takes the step to report harassment, it can inspire others who might be facing similar situations to come forward. This collective action can lead to a broader recognition of the problem and drive systemic changes within the organization.
  • Protecting Colleagues: Harassers often target multiple individuals over time. By reporting harassment, the victim can help protect colleagues from experiencing the same behaviour in the future. Early reporting can curtail a harasser’s actions, preventing them from victimizing others.
  • Employer Accountability: Organizations are typically responsible for providing a safe working environment. By reporting harassment, employees hold their employers accountable, ensuring they address the issue and put measures in place to prevent future occurrences.
  • Professional Growth and Productivity: Employees subjected to harassment often find their professional growth stymied, either due to the direct actions of the harasser or the negative mental effects of enduring such behaviour. Reporting can pave the way for a more conducive environment where individuals can focus on their tasks and professional development without the looming threat of harassment.
  • Societal Change: On a broader scale, every time harassment is reported and addressed, it contributes to societal change by challenging and reshaping norms and attitudes. Over time, consistent reporting and action can lead to a society where workplace harassment is the exception, not the norm.

In essence, reporting workplace harassment is not just an act of self-preservation; it is a pivotal step in driving change, both within the organization and society at large.

How Workplace Harassment Affects Workplace Performance

How To Report Workplace Harassment?

Reporting workplace harassment is a crucial step in ensuring a safe and inclusive work environment. If you or someone you know is experiencing harassment at work, following these steps can help address and resolve the situation:

1. Document Everything

Proper documentation is the backbone of any harassment claim. By meticulously recording every incident, you’re not only establishing a pattern of behaviour but also providing tangible evidence that can validate your claims. Whether it’s a snide comment overheard at the water cooler or an inappropriate email, having detailed notes with specifics can be invaluable.

These records, which should include dates, times, locations, involved parties, and the nature of the harassment, serve as contemporaneous evidence that can be pivotal in any investigation or legal proceeding.

2. Know Your Rights

Every employee should be knowledgeable about the policies and protections afforded to them by their employer. Companies typically have anti-harassment policies and codes of conduct, many times mandated by law.

Delving into these can offer clarity about what the company considers harassment and its designated process for addressing such issues. This foundation ensures you’re well-informed and can confidently address any untoward behaviour in the context of company policy.

3. Talk to the Harasser

A direct conversation can sometimes nip the problem in the bud. While it’s paramount to ensure one’s safety, if you’re comfortable, addressing the harasser directly can be beneficial. On occasions, individuals might not be conscious of the impact of their actions.

By explicitly stating that their behaviour is inappropriate and unwelcome, you give them an opportunity to rectify their actions before taking formal steps.

4. Formally Report the Harassment

Formal reporting is the next logical step if direct communication doesn’t yield results or isn’t feasible. The process might differ based on company protocol but usually involves notifying a direct supervisor, the human resources department, or a designated company representative. When reporting, it’s essential to be clear concise, and provide the detailed documentation you’ve amassed.

5. Seek External Assistance

Sometimes, internal channels might not offer a resolution, or the fear of retaliation might deter victims from reporting. In such scenarios, external assistance can be invaluable. Legal counsel can offer guidance on rights and potential courses of action, while union representatives can advocate on behalf of their members.

Regulatory bodies or watchdogs might also intervene, ensuring companies adhere to workplace conduct standards.

How To Report Workplace Harassment

6. Confidentiality and Anonymity

The fear of backlash, especially in tight-knit or hierarchical work environments, can be overwhelming. It’s comforting to know that many organizations recognize this and offer avenues for confidential or even anonymous reporting. This ensures that victims can voice their concerns without the immediate fear of identification or retaliation.

7. Know the Investigation Process

After lodging a complaint, an investigation typically ensues. This process can be intricate, with multiple interviews, evidence gathering, and often consultation with legal or specialized professionals. Being aware of this process can help set expectations and prepare the complainant for the steps ahead.

8. Seek Support

The emotional toll of enduring and reporting harassment cannot be overstated. Emotional and psychological support can be paramount during such times. Friends and family can offer solace, while professional counselling can provide coping strategies. Additionally, many organizations recognize the importance of mental well-being and offer Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs) to help employees navigate such challenging times.

9. Stay Informed

Post-reporting, it’s essential to stay engaged and informed about the progression of your complaint. Regular follow-ups convey your commitment to resolving the issue and can also ensure that your complaint doesn’t fall through the cracks. Being proactive in this phase can also help in gathering additional information or understanding the company’s stance.

10. Consider Legal Action

Sadly, not all employers address harassment complaints adequately. If there’s a lack of action, or worse, if retaliation ensues post-reporting, legal avenues might be the best course of action. Consulting with an attorney, especially one specializing in workplace harassment or employment law, can provide clarity on rights, potential remedies, and the way forward.

Remember, no one should endure harassment in their place of work. Everyone has the right to a safe and respectful working environment. If you’re facing harassment, know that you’re not alone and that resources and support are available to help you navigate the situation.

Why Reporting Workplace Harassment Is Important

What To Avoid When Facing Workplace Harassment?

Facing workplace harassment can be an emotionally challenging and stressful experience. However, certain actions and responses can unintentionally exacerbate the situation or hinder your ability to seek a proper resolution. Here’s an expanded discussion on what to avoid when facing workplace harassment:

  1. Ignoring the Behavior: While it might seem easier to ignore or dismiss minor incidents, letting them slide can potentially embolden the harasser. Over time, unchecked behaviour can escalate or become a consistent pattern, leading to a more toxic work environment.
  2. Not Documenting Incidents: Proper documentation serves as a crucial piece of evidence if you decide to take formal action. Failing to record incidents, including dates, times, locations, witnesses, and the nature of the harassment, can weaken your case should you decide to report it later.
  3. Retaliating: While it’s natural to feel anger and resentment towards the harasser, retaliating can complicate matters. Not only can it escalate tensions, but it can also shift the focus from the harasser’s behaviour to your response, potentially muddying the waters during investigations.
  4. Keeping Silent: While sharing your experience can be daunting, confiding in trusted colleagues, friends, or family can offer emotional support. Additionally, speaking out can help identify if others have faced similar issues, providing a collective voice against the harasser.
  5. Not Reviewing Company Policies: Being unaware of your company’s anti-harassment policies and reporting procedures can put you at a disadvantage. Understanding these guidelines ensures you follow the proper channels and know your rights within the organization.
  6. Isolating Yourself: Harassment can lead to feelings of shame or embarrassment, prompting some to withdraw from their colleagues. However, isolating yourself can deprive you of potential allies and support systems that can help navigate the situation.
  7. Deleting Communication Records: Ensure you preserve any electronic communication, like emails or text messages, related to the harassment. These can serve as valuable evidence to corroborate your claims.
  8. Not Seeking Legal or Professional Advice: In cases where harassment is persistent or severe or where the company doesn’t adequately address your concerns, it may be beneficial to consult with legal professionals or counsellors who specialize in workplace harassment.
  9. Making Exaggerated Claims: While it’s crucial to report any form of harassment, ensure your accounts are factual and accurate. Exaggerating or embellishing the truth can damage your credibility and undermine genuine claims.
  10. Not Prioritizing Your Well-being: Enduring harassment can take a significant toll on one’s mental and emotional well-being. It’s essential not to neglect self-care. Seek counselling, take necessary breaks, and engage in activities that help alleviate stress.

While it’s vital to address workplace harassment head-on, being mindful of potential missteps can make the path towards resolution smoother and more effective. It’s always essential to act with integrity, gather evidence, and seek support when necessary.

Types Of Workplace Harassment

How Workplace Harassment Affects Workplace Performance?

Workplace harassment has far-reaching consequences not only for the individuals directly involved but also for the overall performance and productivity of an organization. Here’s how workplace harassment can impact workplace performance:

  • Decreased Productivity: Harassment creates an uncomfortable and hostile environment, making it challenging for employees to focus on their tasks. Distress and anxiety resulting from harassment can lead to a decline in individual and team productivity.
  • Increased Absenteeism: Victims of harassment may choose to take time off to avoid the hostile environment or due to the emotional and physical stress it causes. Frequent absences disrupt the workflow and can result in missed deadlines and unfinished tasks.
  • Higher Employee Turnover: A toxic work environment characterized by harassment can push employees to resign to seek a safer and more respectful workplace. Hiring and training replacements can be costly and time-consuming.
  • Damaged Team Dynamics: Harassment can create rifts and divisions within teams. A lack of trust and open communication can stifle collaboration and creativity, essential factors for successful teamwork.
  • Decreased Employee Morale: Harassment casts a dark shadow over the workplace, leading to a general decrease in morale and job satisfaction. Disheartened employees are less likely to put in the discretionary effort that often leads to innovation and excellence.
  • Legal and Financial Repercussions: If victims of harassment decide to pursue legal action, organizations can face severe financial penalties. Legal battles can also tarnish a company’s reputation, making it harder to attract top talent or maintain customer trust.
  • Tarnished Reputation: News of workplace harassment, especially in the age of social media, can spread quickly, potentially harming the company’s image. A damaged reputation can affect customer loyalty, partnerships, and stock prices.
  • Increased Medical and Insurance Costs: Harassment can result in physical and psychological health issues for victims, leading to increased medical claims and, subsequently, higher insurance premiums for the organization.
  • Loss of Talent: Apart from the obvious employee turnover, workplace harassment can prevent potential high-performing employees from ever joining the organization. Word-of-mouth and employer review platforms can deter potential hires if they get wind of a company’s toxic culture.
  • Impaired Decision-Making: Employees undergoing stress and emotional turmoil are less likely to make clear, logical decisions. This can result in mistakes, poor judgment, and flawed strategies, which can have long-term consequences for an organization.

In conclusion, workplace harassment has a ripple effect that touches every aspect of an organization’s functioning. Addressing and preventing harassment is not only a moral imperative but also essential for the sustained success and growth of an organization.

What is Workplace Harassment

Different Workplace Harassment Laws

Workplace harassment laws differ by country and region. These laws are designed to protect employees from various forms of discrimination and harassment, ensuring a safe and respectful work environment. Here’s an overview of different workplace harassment laws in various countries:

1. United States

  • Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 Prohibits employment discrimination based on race, colour, religion, sex, and national origin. It also addresses issues of sexual harassment.
  • Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA): Protects employees over the age of 40 from age-based discrimination.
  • Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA): Prohibits discrimination against individuals with disabilities.

2. Canada

  • Canadian Human Rights Act: Prohibits discrimination based on race, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, age, sex, sexual orientation, marital status, family status, disability, or conviction for which a pardon has been granted.

3. United Kingdom

  • Equality Act 2010: Consolidates numerous acts and regulations to protect individuals from unfair treatment and promotes a fair and more equal society. It covers discrimination based on age, disability, gender reassignment, marriage and civil partnership, pregnancy and maternity, race, religion or belief, sex, and sexual orientation.

4. Australia

  • Fair Work Act 2009: Establishes principles related to workplace rights and rules, including protections against workplace harassment.
  • Sex Discrimination Act 1984: Specifically addresses sexual harassment in the workplace.

5. India

  • The Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013 Provides protection against sexual harassment of women at the workplace and for the redressal of complaints.

6. European Union

  • Framework Directive 2000/78/EC: Establishes a general framework for equal treatment in employment and occupation, prohibiting discrimination based on various factors, including religion, disability, age, or sexual orientation.
  • Directive 2006/54/EC: Concerns equal opportunities and equal treatment of men and women in matters of employment and occupation.

7. South Africa

  • Employment Equity Act, 1998: Promotes equal opportunity and fair employment treatment by eliminating unfair discrimination.
  • Protection from Harassment Act, 2011: Provides for the issuing of protection orders regarding harassment.

8. Japan

  • Act on Securing, Etc. of Equal Opportunity and Treatment between Men and Women in Employment: Prohibits gender-based discrimination and harassment in the workplace.

9. Brazil

  • Maria da Penha Law (Law 11.340/2006): Although primarily addressing domestic violence, this law has implications for workplace harassment and offers protective measures.

10. New Zealand

  • Human Rights Act 1993: Addresses discrimination and harassment based on numerous grounds, including sex, marital status, religious belief, ethical belief, colour, race, ethnic or national origins, disability, age, political opinion, employment status, family status, and sexual orientation.

It’s essential to note that in many countries, regional or local laws might also offer additional protections. Moreover, many companies have their own policies and procedures in place that may offer even more extensive protections than those mandated by law.


Workplace harassment is not just an issue for the victims but a challenge that threatens the very fabric of organizational culture and productivity. By recognizing its forms, understanding its repercussions, and taking informed actions, both employers and employees can transform workplaces into zones of safety, respect, and inclusivity.

Beyond adherence to laws, the onus is on every individual to foster an environment where respect and dignity are paramount. The journey to eradicate workplace harassment begins with awareness and culminates in collective action.

As we venture further into a world where workplaces evolve and diversify, let’s commit to making them sanctuaries of growth, collaboration, and mutual respect.

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