Workplace harassment is a serious problem impacting modern workplaces. The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), the federal agency that investigates harassment complaints, receives, on average, 82,847 reports of workplace harassment per year. The most common complaints include:
- Retaliation (53%)
- Harassment due to someone’s legally protected disability (33.4%)
- Race (33%)
- And sexual harassment (32.4%)
Addressing workplace harassment is not just about following the law — it’s the right thing to do. Everyone deserves to be respected at work, and to have a safe, harassment-free workplace.
What is workplace harassment?
The EEOC defines harassment as “unwelcome conduct that is based on race, color, religion, sex (including sexual orientation, gender identity, or pregnancy), national origin, older age (beginning at 40), disability or genetic information (including family medical history).”
While corporate policies typically prohibit this behavior, harassment becomes illegal when the offensive conduct is severe or pervasive enough to make the workplace intimidating, hostile, or abusive to a reasonable person, or if someone is forced to endure the harassment as a condition of continued employment. If an employer retaliates when an employee reports harassment, this is illegal as well.
Not all unwelcome behavior constitutes illegal conduct. Annoyances, arguments, teasing, small slights, and isolated incidents may not count as unlawful, unless they are extreme or serious. Mutual, consensual flirting where neither party feels uncomfortable, or a mutual hug is not considered unlawful, because there was consent.
Below is a sample page of one section of Ethena training, going over consent.
3 Federal laws that govern workplace harassment
Employees are protected from workplace harassment by a number of federal laws, including the following.
- Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Title VII). This federal law prohibits employment discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, and national origin. Title VI applies to all employers with 15 or more employees.
- Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 (ADEA). ADEA explicitly forbids age discrimination against people who are 40 or older with respect to any term, condition, or privilege of employment, including related to hiring, firing, recruiting, layoff, training, and job assignments. This law applies to private employers with 20 or more employees.
- Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA). The ADA prohibits discrimination against a qualified applicant or employee on the basis of a physical or mental disability. The ADA applies to all private employers with 15 or more employees.
While certain federal employment discrimination laws may only apply to businesses of certain sizes, state and local discrimination laws may apply to businesses of all sizes, even businesses that only have one employee. Additionally, some states have also enacted laws that protect additional characteristics. For example, California’s anti-discrimination laws also protect against discrimination based on sexual orientation, gender identity, and marital status.
Types of workplace harassment (a non-exhaustive list)
There are various types of workplace harassment. And while harassment types include discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, age, disability or nationality, and sex, it can also include conduct that:
- Is sexual in nature
- Is severe or pervasive enough to create a hostile work environment
- Forms a condition for employment.
The methods of harassment include verbal, physical, psychological, and online (also known as cyberbullying).
1. Discriminatory harassment
Discrimination is when employment status is negatively affected due to being in a protected class, such as race, gender or gender identity, ability, religion, age, sex, sexual orientation, national origin, pregnancy, or disability. This type of discrimination is illegal.
When discrimination or mistreatment creates a toxic work environment, it is also a form of workplace harassment and is also illegal.
2. Sexual harassment
Sexual harassment is one of the most serious — and most common — forms of workplace harassment. A national survey by Stop Street Harassment reported that more than three out of four women (77%) and one out of three men (34%) have experienced verbal sexual harassment in their lifetimes. A Pew Research Center study reports that 59% of women and 27% of men have received unwanted sexual advances, or verbal or physical harassment of a sexual nature. Of these women, 55% say they have been sexually harassed both in and out of the workplace.
As we discuss in our Harassment Prevention training, there are two primary types of sexual harassment: quid pro quo and hostile work environment. Both are illegal.
- Quid pro quo. This is something given in exchange for something else — meaning a person in a position of authority trades, or tries to trade, sexual favors for job benefits. An example of this is offering job opportunities or better working conditions in exchange for a date. The reverse is harassment, too: threatening worse working conditions or terms of employment unless a direct report gives you shoulder rubs on demand.
- Hostile work environment. This occurs when unwelcome comments or conduct of a sexual nature is severe or pervasive enough to unreasonably interfere with an employee's work performance or creates an intimidating, hostile, or offensive work environment. It can include sexual or discriminatory displays, jokes, comments, or noises about a person’s sexuality or sexual experience as well as hostile actions taken because of an individual’s sex. An example of this is physically impeding someone’s movement to intimidate or coerce them.
A common misconception is that something needs to be sexual in nature to be considered sexual harassment. But non-sexual comments or acts, like gender stereotyping or pregnancy jokes, also fall under the term "sexual harassment." In this way, sexual harassment encompasses “sex-based harassment.”
3. Physical harassment
It’s not appropriate — nor legal, in most cases — to touch others in the workplace. Physical harassment can be as seemingly harmless as improper touching of skin or clothing, or as dangerous as physical assaults. Even damaging someone’s personal property falls into the category of physical harassment.
4. Verbal harassment
Verbal harassment is a means of harassing through the spoken word and can include offensive slurs, demeaning gestures, offensive jokes, and unwarranted criticism. Body shaming, like fat-shaming, can be an example of verbal harassment.
5. Psychological harassment
Psychological harassment is bullying in a non-apparent way. This type of harassment may or may not be apparent to an outsider, but the victim can certainly feel it consciously and/or subconsciously. This harassing behavior can include making impossible demands on an employee, withholding information necessary for them to perform their job, and forcing someone to do tasks outside of their job scope, like asking an employee to perform personal chores for their boss. These are all forms of harassment that can have a psychological impact.
Cyberbullying (or online harassment) is a means of harassment that takes place digitally. According to a Pew Research Center study, 41% of people say they’ve experienced some form of online harassment, with 75% of that group saying it took place on social media. There are other ways cyberbullying happens online, such as via work email, work instant messaging platforms, text, on work forums, on apps, or by any other digital means amidst coworkers.
What if harassment involves a third party?
A harasser doesn’t have to work at the company for behavior to qualify as workplace harassment. The laws enforced by the EEOC protect employees from being harassed by anyone in the workplace. Harassment can also come from people who are connected to — but not employed by — the company, like a client, vendor, or customer.
According to Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1968, an employer can be held liable for “third parties creating a hostile work environment if the employer knew or should have known of the harassment and failed to take prompt remedial action reasonably calculated to end the harassment.”
Additionally, the victim may not even be the person harassed, but anyone affected by the conduct. The laws still apply.
How to report workplace harassment
Everyone has the right to a safe and supportive work environment and is protected from harassment under the law. Reporting harassment may feel scary, but it builds a culture of accountability. You can report regardless of whether you’re the target or an observer, or even if you just heard about it third-hand. If you do not feel comfortable reporting harassment to your manager, you can go to the next level up.
Unfortunately, workplace harassment often goes unreported. A Select Task Force study by the EEOC reported that “three out of four individuals who experienced harassment never even talked to a supervisor … about the harassing conduct.”
Why? Employees may fear retaliation from their employer. But rest assured: retaliation is illegal. An employee cannot be retaliated against for any of the following:
- Making a formal report (sometimes referred to as a “complaint” depending on the agency)
- Making a report of harassment or suspected harassment, even if not the target
- Making a report in good faith, even if it ends up not being unlawful sexual harassment
- Opposing harassment
- Helping a colleague report harassment or suspected harassment
- Providing information during a harassment investigation
Here’s something else we mention in our training: Reporting is not “complaining” or “making a mountain out of a molehill.” For that reason, using the word “report” can help people recognize that there is nothing whiny about reporting harassment.
A healthy workplace begins with preventing harassment. While there’s many methods to do this, we firmly believe effective harassment prevention training can help. A a female-owned company, it’s what we were co-founded on.