5 Common examples of employee harassment in the workplace
It's been nearly 60 years since Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 became law, but employee harassment is still a reality for millions of American workers. All forms of harassment, whether they're based on gender, race, disability, or personal beliefs, create a hostile environment where employees face unrelenting insults and fear retaliation. By recognizing the most common types of workplace harassment, small business owners can prevent these situations and maintain a workplace that is safe and equitable for everyone.
Addressing harassment in the workplace can also improve your business. When employees feel protected and supported, they are more likely to stick around, improving your retention rates and boosting morale.
What is workplace harassment?
The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission enforces laws against workplace harassment. According to the EEOC, harassment in the workplace involves conduct that is unwelcome and offensive, and that is based on a protected classification such as race, national origin, color, sex (including sexual orientation, gender identity, and pregnancy), disability, age (over 40), religion, or genetic information. Harassment can include telling derogatory jokes, sharing offensive cartoons or pictures, using ethnic slurs, pressuring others for sexual favors, unwanted touching, and more. Retaliating against a worker for reporting these behaviors is also considered harassment.
Harassment that creates a work environment that most people would consider hostile, offensive, or intimidating is illegal. The harasser can be any age or gender, and can be the victim’s co-worker, supervisor, direct report, or even a non-employee, such as a vendor. A victim can be the person who is harassed, or someone else who is affected by the harasser’s behavior, according to the EEOC. The first step toward addressing and preventing harassment is understanding what it looks like. Here are a few examples of harassment in the workplace.
1. Racial harassment
Harassment and discrimination based on race or national origin are still present in the American workplace. In 2022, EEOC charges of harassment based on race made up 28.6% of all charges.
Examples of harassment in the workplace include derogatory jokes, racial slurs, personal insults, and expressions of disgust or intolerance toward a particular race or country of origin. Abuse may range from mocking a worker's accent to psychologically intimidating employees by making threats or displaying discriminatory symbols. Harassers may include supervisors and co-workers as well as customers or patients. To address racial harassment, you may want to start by offering employees unconscious bias training.
2. Sexual and gender employee harassment
Title VII prohibits discrimination based on sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, and pregnancy. The number of sexual harassment charges received by the EEOC increased 13.6% in 2017, coinciding with the #MeToo movement. Between 2018 and 2021, sexual harassment charges accounted for 27.7% of all harassment charges, and 78.2% of those charges were filed by women. It's important to note that the EEOC found, in a 2016 study conducted prior to #MeToo, that most harassment is never reported. The study found that approximately three out of four workers who were harassed did not report it to a supervisor, manager, or union representative.
Sexual and gender harassment can take many forms. It includes unwanted physical contact, intimidation, threats, insults, offensive pictures, and more. A manager who asks a subordinate out on a date and implies that agreeing will improve their standing on the team is one example. Another example is when an employee circulates a joke about transgendered people in a group chat. If an employee is passed over for a promotion because they are pregnant, they may also be a victim of gender harassment.
3. Religious harassment
Claims of harassment on religious grounds jumped sharply in 2022, to 18.8%, up from 3.4% the prior year.
Individuals who express their beliefs outwardly are more likely to experience this form of harassment. On the other hand, employees who are nonreligious may be confronted by co-workers or superiors who have different beliefs. Arguing about religion and attempting to change someone's viewpoint are also considered to be harassment.
The EEOC states that it's not illegal to make an offhand comment or joke about someone's religion. Teasing becomes harassment when it creates a hostile work environment or the worker fears retaliation. However, insensitive comments about one's spiritual or personal beliefs are still hurtful and may create an environment where other forms of harassment can flourish.
4. Age harassment
Workers aged 40 or older are protected from harassment and discrimination by Title VII. Still,15.6% of the charges brought by the EEOC in 2022 were for ageism.
With many people delaying retirement, the US workforce is aging, and older workers have the experience to add significant value to their employers. But ageism still exists, even though it is illegal to discriminate against workers who are 40 years old or older. This means that older workers are legally protected against discrimination due to their age, and they cannot be victims of an adverse employment decision, such as demotion or firing, based on their age.
As the composition of the workforce shifts, employees and managers must be aware of the stigma that older professionals face. In an age-diverse workplace, it's important to prevent harassment by integrating older workers into the team, avoiding isolation, and listening to their ideas.
5. Retaliation harassment
The most common EEOC claim of employee harassment is retaliation, comprising over half (51.6%) of all claims received by the agency in 2022. Retaliation occurs when an employee is reprimanded, disciplined, or generally has their work environment made more difficult because they reported experiencing harassment, intervened to prevent harassment, or participated in an interview about a harassment case.
How do you prevent and mitigate employee harassment in the workplace?
Under federal law, businesses are responsible for preventing harassment and for addressing disputes quickly and fairly. Unresolved harassment claims may lead to government investigations, lawsuits from current or former employees, and lost revenue. In certain cases, employers are automatically liable for harassment perpetrated by managers and supervisors.
Today, businesses of all sizes must implement anti-discrimination policies and create effective plans for preventing, detecting, and mitigating employee harassment. As a business owner, it's more important than ever to maintain a welcoming workplace that's free from hostility.
Perhaps the best reason to stop harassment in its tracks in your workplace is because the right thing to do. “Harassment is costly and harmful to everyone in a company, because it leads to decreased productivity and profitability, poor morale, increased absenteeism, and turnover and has legal consequences,” says Erica Fletcher, Global Head of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion for Hiscox. “It’s not the right way to treat people and it’s not the kind of environment people want to work in. It’s important to make sure your team members understand that any kind of harassment is unacceptable behavior and that you put structures and resources in place to help them identify and address these situations if they arise.
“While policies help, it is through the day-to-day interactions with people that tell them they belong. And when your team members feel included, they can work together as a more effective team. It is good business sense to create a work environment that is fair, inclusive, and people are treated with the respect they deserve.”