What Is Workplace Harassment? Understanding Your Rights

If you’ve been in the workforce for any length of time, you know that some jobs offer a more welcoming environment than others. After an uncomfortable situation, you may be left wondering, “What is workplace harassment?” From a legal standpoint, not every awkward or negative experience will be considered workplace harassment. 

The Legal Definition of Workplace Harassment 

At the federal level, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) defines what is and is not illegal workplace harassment. It is illegal for you to be treated differently—either favored or discriminated against—because of your:

  • Race or skin color
  • Country of origin
  • Sex or gender expression
  • Sexual orientation
  • Age, if you are over 40 years old
  • Religious beliefs, or lack of religious beliefs
  • Disability
  • Pregnancy

Who can commit workplace harassment?

Workplace harassment is not limited to actions by your boss or supervisor. Workers can experience harassment from other employees, clients, contractors—anyone you’re associated with through your job. 

What Is Workplace Harassment?  

Generally speaking, harassment in the workplace will fall into one of five categories. These categories are not necessarily discrete. It’s possible for an act of harassment to fall into more than one category.  

Physical 

Physical harassment is any type of unwanted touching or physical assault.

  • A contractor tries to hug you, despite you telling them that it makes you uncomfortable
  • A coworker becomes angry and shoves you
  • Your boss touches your hair when you’ve told them not to

Verbal

Verbal harassment is anything spoken that violates the EEOC’s guidelines.

  • A coworker calls you a racial slur
  • Your manager makes fun of your religious garment or jewelry
  • Your boss criticizes you for taking prayer breaks, even when these breaks are protected by law and do not interfere with your job performance 

Sexual

Any type of workplace harassment that is sexual in nature is illegal. 

  • Your boss offers you a promotion in exchange for a sexual relationship
  • A colleague makes inappropriate comments about your body
  • A coworker gropes your buttocks without your consent

Psychological 

Psychological harassment is often subtle and can be more difficult to pinpoint.

  • Your supervisor asks you to perform duties outside of your job scope or training
  • A coworker takes credit for your accomplishments or ideas
  • You are given an unreasonable quota to meet 

Cyberbullying

Certain online activities fall under cyberbullying.

  • An angry coworker finds your Facebook page and leaves inappropriate comments
  • A coworker emails unsolicited, explicit photos to you 
  • You end a dating relationship with a colleague, and they send explicit photos of you to other employees 

The EEOC states that these harassing behaviors must be “unwanted,” as well asserious” or “pervasive.” These criteria can be difficult to interpret in the real world, so it’s equally important to understand what is not workplace harassment. 

What Is Not Workplace Harassment?

Not every distressing or seemingly unfair situation will meet the legal definition of workplace harassment. The following circumstances may not be considered illegal.

  • A coworker asks you on a date, but you’re not interested and turn them down; they respect your “No” and leave you alone 
  • Your boss is always grumpy or cranky, so long as these behaviors are not targeted at one individual or one specific group (i.e., all women or all people of color)
  • A contractor makes one off-handed comment, so long as it’s not “serious,” such as a racial slur
  • You’re demoted and your supervisor has documented evidence to support this decision, such as poor job performance or chronic absenteeism

Some situations aren’t clear-cut, and workplace harassment can become commonplace and thus difficult to recognize. If you’re unsure about what you’ve experienced, there are resources available to help.

What if I’m Unsure About What I’ve Experienced?

Workers who are unsure about whether or not they’ve experienced illegal workplace harassment have several options.

  • One criterion for workplace harassment is that the behavior is unwelcome or unwanted. If you can, let the person know that you want their behavior to stop. They may not realize that their actions make you uncomfortable.
  • If the problem is with a coworker, client, or contractor, speak with your supervisor. 
  • If speaking with your supervisor isn’t practical or they’re the one who is harassing you, you can contact your company’s HR department.
  • You can reach out to your local EEOC Field Office for assistance.
  • You can speak with a workplace harassment attorney. Many offer free consultations where you can learn if you have a legal case or not.

Legal Help for Workplace Harassment

If you’ve been the victim of workplace harassment, it’s important to find legal help. Many employees are vulnerable, intimidated, and afraid to fight back against illegal harassment. Years ago, this type of behavior was tolerated or overlooked, but times have changed. Employers and others who commit workplace harassment must be held accountable. Contact a workplace harassment lawyer to understand your rights and learn what your options are.

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