5 Common Examples of Employee Harassment in the Workplace

March 18, 2019

It's been more than 50 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, employees, managers and small business owners can prevent these situations while limiting their liability exposure. Here are a few examples of harassment based on data from the 2018 Hiscox Workplace Harassment Study.

1. Sexual and Gender Employee Harassment

Sexual advances and gender harassment are two of the most common and diverse types of workplace abuse according to the Hiscox study. Among workers who experienced harassment, 50 percent said that the incident was sexual in nature or related to their gender. In general, more women reported experiencing inappropriate behavior, sexual advances or unwanted physical contact in the workplace. However, sexual harassment is not a genderless crime. It may be perpetrated by men, women, same-sex co-workers or even clients.

Gender harassment is slightly different because it involves general sexist behavior, such as making derisive remarks or engaging in demeaning conduct. This form of harassment is targeted toward one sex, but it's also offensive on an individual level. When sexist or sexualized behavior is allowed to proliferate, it creates a toxic workplace for victims and their peers.

2. Racial Harassment in the Work Place

Racial harassment and discrimination are still present in the American workplace. The Hiscox study found that nearly one-fifth of workers who have been harassed experienced unwelcome comments or demeaning behavior related to their race, color or national origin. Research suggests that younger workers and ethnic minorities are the most frequent targets of racial harassment.

This form of harassment may stem from innocent curiosity or crude attempts at humor, but in many cases, victims are subject to repeated abuse that escalates in frequency and intensity. Harassers include supervisors and co-workers as well as customers and/or patients. Examples of harassment in the workplace include derogatory jokes, racial slurs, personal insults and expressions of disgust or intolerance toward a particular race. Abuse may range from mocking a worker's accent to psychologically intimidating employees by making threats or displaying discriminatory symbols.

3. Office Harassment Related to Religious Beliefs

According to the Hiscox study, the third most common form of workplace harassment relates to personal beliefs. Some 15 percent of harassment victims said that their co-workers initiated unwanted discussions or made demeaning comments about their religion.

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 U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission states that it's not illegal to make an offhand comment or joke about someone's religion. Teasing only 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. Employee Harassment Related to One's Sexual Orientation

Based on responses from the 2018 study, 13 percent of all workplace harassment incidents involved negative comments about a person's sexual orientation. Among LGBT workers, the numbers are substantially higher. A meta-analysis of workplace harassment studies conducted by the Williams Institute on Sexual Orientation Law and Public Policy found that as many as 43 percent of gay workers have experienced mistreatment on the job.

This type of employee harassment occurs when co-workers, managers or customers use derogatory language and homophobic slurs or make disparaging remarks about someone's perceived sexual orientation. Laws prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation are only in effect in half of all states, although federal statutes are being considered. While current laws may not expressly prohibit this form of harassment, it's important for managers and supervisors to swiftly address any comments that are made solely to inflict emotional distress. Proactive plans for detecting harassment help prevent hostility in the workplace.

5. Ageism in the Work Place

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, more than 40 percent of workers are over 55, and this percentage is projected to rise. Studies show that older workers provide added value to employers. However, seniors are not always treated with the respect that they deserve. Results from the Hiscox study showed that 13 percent of workers who were harassed were subjected to age-related taunts.

University of Maine researchers found that more than 20 percent of workers over 62 were belittled by their co-workers and bosses. More than 25 percent of respondents said that their work contributions were ignored and that their input wasn't considered when making decisions. Many said that their fellow employees made age-related jokes.

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.

Steps for Preventing and Mitigating Employee Harassment in the Work Place

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 many cases, employers are automatically liable for harassment perpetrated by managers and supervisors.

To protect your business from potential revenue losses and financial claims, it may be beneficial to ask your Hiscox agent about liability insurance solutions. 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.