There are so many types of workplace harassment and so many interpretations that even the most diligent HR professional could miss the signs.
For a quick, downloadable snapshot of the 11 types of workplace harassment, here’s a cheat sheet.
With a more thorough understanding of workplace harassment, you’re better equipped to help a victim deal with their experiences, file (or help file) a harassment complaint and implement office training.
By the end of this guide you will be able to identify 11 of the most common types of workplace harassment and how they might intersect. Plus, we’ll share three expert tips for reducing harassment in the office.
All unlawful workplace harassment is discriminatory in nature. But, unlike verbal or physical harassment, discriminatory harassment is defined by its intentions instead of how it’s carried out.
In this case, the bully is harassing the victim because, at least in part, they’re a member of a protected class.
The more common and recognizable forms of discriminatory harassment are described in more detail below.
A victim may experience racial harassment because of their race, skin color, ancestry, origin country or citizenship.
Even perceived attributes of a certain ethnicity (curly hair, accents, customs, beliefs or clothing) may be the cause. Racial harassment often looks like:
- Racial slurs
- Racial insults
- Racial jokes
- Degrading comments
- Intolerance of differences
Gender-based harassment is discriminatory behavior towards a person based on their gender.
Negative gender stereotypes about how men and women should or do act are often the center of the harassment. Some examples are:
- A male nurse faces harassment for having what is perceived as a woman’s job
- A female banker hits the glass ceiling and taunted for not being “leader material”
- A male colleague displays material (comics, posters) that’s degrading to women
Religious harassment is often interconnected with racial harassment, but narrows in specifically on the victim’s religious beliefs.
An individual with a religion that differs from the “norm” of the company may face workplace harassment or intolerance in a variety of ways:
- Intolerance toward religious holidays
- Intolerance toward religious traditions
- Intolerance toward religious customs
- Cruel religious jokes
- Degrading stereotypical comments
- Pressures to convert religions
Disability-based harassment is a type of workplace harassment directed towards individuals who either:
- Suffer from a disability themselves
- Are acquainted with a disabled person or people
- Use disability services (sick leave or workers’ comp)
A person with a disability may experience harassment in the form of harmful teasing, patronizing comments, refusals to reasonably accommodate or isolation.
Sexual Orientation-Based Harassment
Sexual orientation-based harassment is starting to gain traction and recognition as a legitimate type of workplace harassment. Victims face harassment because their sexual orientation is different from those around them.
People of any sexual orientation (heterosexual, homosexual, bisexual, asexual, etc.) may experience this form of harassment depending on their line of work.
For example, a homosexual man may face harassment on a construction site whereas a heterosexual man may be teased for working in a salon.
Workers 40 years and older are specifically protected by the Civil Rights Act of 1964 in an attempt to promote employment of older people and reduce age-based harassment.
A person facing age-based harassment might be:
- Teased and insulted,
- Left out of activities or meetings, or
- Unfairly criticized…
…Simply because of their age and the stereotypes that come with it. Unfortunately, this harassment is sometimes an attempt to wrongfully push the individual into early retirement.
Personal harassment is a form of workplace harassment that’s not based on one of the protected classes (such as race, gender or religion).
Simply, it’s bullying in its most basic form and it’s not illegal but can be damaging nevertheless.
Examples of Personal Harassment
Personal harassment includes:
- Inappropriate comments
- Offensive jokes
- Personal humiliation
- Critical remarks
- Ostracizing behaviors
- Intimidation tactics
Or any other behavior that creates an intimidating and offensive work environment for the victim.
Physical harassment, also often called workplace violence, refers to a type of workplace harassment that involves physical attacks or threats. In extreme cases, physical harassment may be classified as assault.
Physical gestures such as playful shoving can blur the line between appropriate or not, since it’s the person on the receiving end who decides whether the behavior makes them uncomfortable.
In order to more clearly define that line, physical harassment should be taken very seriously in the workplace and explained thoroughly in codes of conduct and policies.
Examples of Physical Harassment
Common behaviors include:
- Direct threats of intent to inflict harm
- Physical attacks (hitting, shoving, kicking)
- Threatening behavior (shaking fists angrily)
- Destroying property to intimidate
Industries at Risk
Employees in some industries are more at higher risk of workplace violence. These include healthcare workers, peace officers, social services employees, teachers and educators, retail staff and public transit drivers.
Power harassment is a common form of workplace harassment that’s characterized by a power disparity between the harasser and the harassed.
The harasser exercises their power by bullying a victim who is lower on the office hierarchy.
In many cases, the harasser is a supervisor or manager who victimizes their subordinates.
Examples of Power Harassment
Power harassment isn’t limited to a certain type of behavior. It can be verbal in the form of intimidation or it can be physical in the form of acts of violence.
More often than not it’s psychological. The harasser subjects the victim to:
- Excessive demands that are impossible to meet
- Demeaning demands far below the employee’s capability
- Intrusion into the employee’s personal life
Psychological harassment has a negative impact on a person’s psychological well-being.
Victims of psychological harassment often feel put down and belittled on a personal level, a professional level or both.
The damage to a victim’s psychological well-being often creates a domino effect, impacting their physical health, social life and work life.
Examples of Psychological Harassment
Psychological harassment in the workplace might look like:
- Isolating or denying the victim’s presence
- Belittling or trivializing the victim’s thoughts
- Discrediting or spreading rumors about the victim
- Opposing or challenging everything the victim says
Employers are embracing new technology in order to appeal to younger employees and reap the benefits of a digitally connected world.
However, there can be a downside to this digital world.
Examples of Online Harassment
Cyberbullying and online harassment are a serious concern for employers. Among many, many other things, online bullies may:
- Share humiliating things about the victim by mass email or mass chat
- Spread lies or gossip about the victim on social media
- Send harassing instant messages or text messages directly to the victim
Federal law doesn’t explicitly cover “cyberbullying” yet (particularly for adults).
However, the Department of Justice has noted that legal action is possible by prosecuting the online misbehavior under another law.
Retaliation harassment is a subtle form of retaliation and an often-overlooked type of workplace harassment.
Retaliation harassment occurs when a person harasses someone else to get revenge and to prevent the victim from behaving in such a way again.
What Does Retaliation Harassment Look Like?
This type of harassment typically has three parts:
- Employee A files a complaint about Employee B.
- Employee B finds out about the complaint and who made it.
- Employee B harasses Employee A to get revenge and deter them from filing further complaints.
Employee B, in this case, would be harassing Employee A as retaliation.
Sexual harassment is, simply, harassment that is sexual in nature and generally includes unwanted sexual advances, conduct or behavior.
Sexual harassment in the workplace is a form of unlawful discrimination and is taken seriously by the courts.
The severity of this workplace harassment warrants a dedicated form for filing a sexual harassment complaint. Get started with this template.
Other types of harassment might take some time and increasing severity to create a hostile work environment for the victim, whereas sexual harassment typically brings about discomfort and negatively impacts the victims’ life immediately.
Examples of Sexual Harassment:
- Sharing sexual photos (pornography)
- Posting sexual posters
- Sexual comments, jokes, questions
- Inappropriate sexual touching
- Inappropriate sexual gestures
- Invading personal space in a sexual way
How Big is the Sexual Harassment Problem?
For many years, there have been whispers that sexual harassment runs rampant in the restaurant industry.
More recently, there’s been a steady flow of sexual harassment stories coming from Hollywood spawning a #MeToo campaign that highlights the prevalence of this behavior.
A recent EEOC study concluded that anywhere between 25 and 85 per cent of women have been the victim of sexual harassment at work.
Even at the lowest number, 25 per cent, this equates to one in four women experiencing workplace sexual harassment.
Quid pro quo, translated to “this for that”, is a type of exchange-based sexual harassment.
If job benefits are offered to an employee on the condition that they partake in some form of sexual conduct, it’s typically referred to as quid pro quo sexual harassment.
In this situation, the harasser, who is often a manager or senior-level employee, may offer something of value for a sexual favor. It can also be a form of blackmail.
Examples of Quid Pro Quo Sexual Harassment
In exchange for romantic or sexual services, the victim may:
- Receive a job offer
- Receive a promotion
- Receive a raise
- Receive opportunities
- Avoid a demotion
- Avoid termination
Quid pro quo sexual harassment can be either explicit or implicit. The harasser may outright ask for the exchange or may hint at it (“Don’t you want this job?”).
Third party harassment is a type of workplace harassment that’s perpetrated by a “third party” – someone from outside of the organization.
Instead of the perpetrator being a boss, supervisor or colleague, he or she is a vendor, supplier, customer or client of the company.
Who is the Victim of Third Party Harassment?
Victims are often young adults in “low-status” or “low-power” jobs (think: cashier or sales associate). Their position in the company, their lack of experience and their reluctance to cause a scene make them ideal victims.
Employer Liability for Third Party Harassers
Because third party harassment doesn’t fit the typical narrative, it remains under-recognized and is often swept under the rug. Regardless of who the harasser is, an employer’s responsibility to take steps to stop the behavior is the same.
Verbal harassment can be the result of personality conflicts in the workplace that have escalated beyond the casual eye roll or something more serious.
Unlike discriminatory types of harassment (such as sexual), verbal abuse is often not illegal. Instead, verbal harassment can be someone who’s consistently mean or unpleasant.
For this reason, a lot of verbal harassment can be particularly damaging since it goes unnoticed and unresolved.
Examples of Verbal Harassment
Obvious verbal harassment behaviors include things like threatening, yelling, insulting or cursing at a victim in public or in private.
If this is aimed at someone in a protected class, it is unlawful.
Negative Effects of Verbal Abuse
Dr Gary Namie, workplace bullying expert, found trends in the negative effects of verbal abuse at work. It’s common, he says, to have feelings of shame and guilt, loss of passions and even increased blood pressure.
So, now we know what types of harassment plague the office, the next step is to stop it.
Here are three ways.
1. Implement, Update, Revive Your Policy
Whatever verb is applicable to your policy situation, do it.
If you don’t have a policy yet – create one (and here’s one: Code of Conduct template).
If you do but it’s out of date and hasn’t been updated since the last century – update it (and here’s how: 18 of the Best Code of Conduct Examples).
If you do but no one cares or knows it exists – dust it off and enforce it.
If there’s a policy, and it’s accurate and enforced, staff will have no reason not to abide by it. But as long as there’s no guiding light for conduct and misconduct, you’re asking for chaos.
2. Train Your Staff
Train your employees on what harassment is, how to recognize it and how to report it.
3. Implement, Update, Revive Your Internal Complaint System
Policy and training can only do so much.
To supplement a policy, and to step in when it’s not enough, an internal complaint system (like i-Sight’s Ethics Hotline) can make employees feel safe and supported.
Unless you have a formal complaint system that acknowledges the victim’s rights to anonymity and security from retaliation, they probably won’t come forward.
Victims will fear the potential backlash, and the lack of support might be worse than the harassment they already face.