Work Relationships

How to identify workplace harassment

Written by Kate Lopaze

If you’ve been paying attention to the news or social media lately, chances are you’ve seen some of the heartbreaking stories and backlash from sexual harassment in industries like entertainment, news, and politics. #Metoo has become an inescapable part of our landscape, as women (and men too) share stories about how people in positions of power took advantage of them in highly inappropriate ways, ranging from the unprofessional to the criminal. The sheer force of this movement can feel overwhelming—but while we get story after story of public figures involved in sexual harassment, it’s also important to know what these issues may look like in everyday life, for the rest of us.

Before we get started, an important note: if you have been harassed, or think a colleague’s or boss’s behavior has crossed a legal line, you should seek out specific legal advice right away. And if you suspect you may have been the victim of workplace harassment but aren’t sure, the first place you should go is to your company’s Human Resources department. This is what they’re there for—acting as a neutral resource to help you identify, report, and resolve problematic behavior or actions in the work environment. We’ve put together some resources and information for reference, but if you’re facing harassment at work you should always seek the qualified help of professionals who are highly trained in workplace harassment issues.

What is workplace harassment?

Workplace harassment can take many different forms. Sometimes it’s obvious. It can be blatant sexual or personal requests from a colleague, client, or boss, like:

I’ll give you a promotion if you sleep with me.

If you don’t do this for me, I’ll fire you.

I can make it worth your while if you come have a few drinks with me.

I’ll give you more business if you take care of me, *wink wink*.

Harassment can also be subtler and more insidious, such as personal comments that make you feel uncomfortable or highly personal topics of conversation that aren’t relevant to your work. This is sometimes known as a “hostile work environment.”

Examples of this type of harassment could include:

  • Telling dirty or inappropriate jokes at work
  • Commenting on physical attributes
  • Making suggestive comments in emails or on social media
  • Displaying suggestive pictures or websites
  • Making sexual innuendos
  • Unnecessary touching without consent
  • Unwelcome sexual advances, or persistent requests for dates or other personal favors
  • Personal ridicule or mockery
  • Sabotaging others’ work or otherwise interfering with work performance
  • Open discrimination or commentary based on gender, race, sexual preference, or other personal attributes

This kind of harassment isn’t necessarily always sexual—it can also be considered workplace bullying. Whether there’s a sexual component or not, personal harassment is never okay. Essentially, if someone is being singled out or targeted for personal reasons and not professional, it could be harassment. And even if someone is being singled out for ostensibly professional reasons, there’s still a line of professionalism that companies and employees are required to follow. Once that commentary or behavior crosses into the personal, it could qualify as harassment. If you feel uncomfortable with the behavior of someone in the workplace, that’s usually a red flag.

Per Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, sexual harassment is considered a form of illegal discrimination in the workplace, which means victims are protected by federal law. If harassment is done on the basis of race, gender, sexual orientation, or religion, victims may also be protected under Title VII. If the harassing behavior is unwelcome and creates a hostile work environment, that can create a situation where the employer is legally liable for the harassment.

Who’s affected by harassment?

Sexual or other harassment can happen to anyone, anytime, in any kind of professional environment. We often hear stories about it happening between a boss and an underling, but in reality it can happen with supervisors, colleagues, clients, or other people who are involved in a professional capacity. A supervisor can be harassed by an employee.

And it’s important to note that no particular gender or group has a lock on sexual harassment. Although 1 in 3 women between the ages of 18 and 34 report having experienced sexual harassment on the job at some point during their careers, this problem is not limited to female victims—men experience this kind of harassment as well. Harassment comes in all shapes and sizes, and harassers are not always stereotypical boss figures. Anyone who makes you feel personally uncomfortable in the workplace is a red flag.

What to do if you’re being harassed

According to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), as much as 70% of sexual harassment goes unreported, often because victims are afraid of retaliation or just don’t feel comfortable coming forward with their experiences. If you’ve experienced harassment (or have seen it happen at your work), you’re protected.

Know that it’s not your fault. If you’re experiencing sexual or other harassment in the workplace, you didn’t bring this on yourself—it’s on the harasser. You’re legally entitled to having a safe, professional working environment.

Know you’re not alone. In a comprehensive, eye-opening 2016 report on workplace harassment, the EEOC found that between 25% and 85% of women reported sexual harassment in the workplace. The variation is likely due to people’s hesitation to report harassment, but no matter what, the figure is staggering—at least 1 in 4 women have experienced harassment. The numbers are rising for men reporting harassment as well: a 2012 study by the EEOC revealed that approximately 17% of men had experienced sexual harassment at work. It’s a widespread problem that has often been kept hidden.

Know your rights. If you’ve been harassed, or think you may have been, it’s important to know what your rights are. The American Association of University Women (AAUW) has a detailed reference guide about how to handle the issue from several different perspectives, giving information on how employees, colleagues, and employers can resolve harassment claims.

Talk about it with someone trusted. This can be a trusted confidante, but if you’re experiencing harassment or have witnessed it and want to take steps to resolve the issue, your company’s HR department is a good first resource. They can help you by confirming your company’s harassment policies and either resolve the issue internally or help you with the next steps of a formal complaint. Employment attorneys can give you a sense of the legal perspective if you think the harassment rises to the level of a legal issue. Always consult with legal and professional resources to determine what you can do officially to document and report the problem.

One of the hardest takeaways in this post-Harvey Weinstein era has been discovering how widespread and pervasive the culture of harassment can be in the workplace. Ideally, it’s not something you’ll ever face in your career, but if you’re one of the growing numbers of women and men dealing with harassment (or bringing it to light), understand that you’re not alone and there are resources out there that can help you.

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About the author

Kate Lopaze

Kate Lopaze is a writer, editor, and digital publishing professional based in New York City. A graduate of the University of Connecticut and Emerson College with degrees in English and publishing, she is passionate about books, baseball, and pop culture (though not necessarily in that order), and lives in Brooklyn with her dog.

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