11 Types of Workplace Harassment (and How to Stop Them)
The workplace harassment epidemic has been exposed. Do you know what to look for and what to do about it?
It seems like every week a new company is in the news for a workplace harassment scandal. When the knowledge that they mishandled, ignored, or didn’t recognize the harassment issues, these companies not only earn a poor reputation, but often must pay financially, too.
For instance, in September 2022, an IHOP franchisee had to pay $125,000 to settle an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) sexual harassment lawsuit. The suit claimed that at least two young female employees were repeatedly subjected to graphic sexual comments, inappropriate touching, and “conditioning employment actions on responses to the [male] manager’s sexual propositions”. The franchisee allegedly knew about this conduct and failed to take action against the manager, forcing the employees to quit.
The franchisee is also required to implement new harassment and discrimination policies, improve training reporting procedures, and use a third-party investigator to handle complaints.
If you don’t want to deal with fines, lawsuits, replacing employees, bad press, or the stress of a scandal, you need to address harassment before it becomes a major issue.
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’ve got three expert harassment prevention tips to help you protect both your employees and your organization.
Don’t gamble with your company’s investigation processes.
Request your demo of Case IQ to find out how users are saving time, closing more cases, reducing risk, and improving compliance.
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. Protected classes include sex/gender, age, race, religion, color, national origin, and physical and mental ability.
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 (e.g. hair texture, skin color, accent, food, use of certain slang or other words, customs, beliefs, holidays or celebrations, clothing) may be the cause. Racial harassment often looks like:
- Use of slurs in general or directed at the victim
- Insulting or degrading comments about the victim’s race or a race as a whole
- Sharing of racial jokes, “memes,” or images
- Acting disgusted to be around the victim (e.g. refusal to share a cubicle; acting grossed-out by the victim’s cultural foods brought for lunch)
- Intolerance of differences
Gender-based harassment is discriminatory behavior towards a person based on their gender expression. It can happen to cisgendered women or men (people whose gender identity matches that they were assigned at birth), trans women or men, and non-binary or two-spirited employees.
Negative gender stereotypes about how men or women should act or look are often the center of harassment. Some examples include:
- A male nurse faces harassment for having what’s perceived as a woman’s job
- A female banker is passed over for a promotion because she’s not “leader material”
- A male colleague displays materials (e.g. comics, posters, screen savers) that are degrading to women
- A non-binary person is referred to as “it” by a coworker
- A transgender man is referred to as “she” in an email
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, including:
- Intolerance toward religious holidays
- Intolerance toward religious traditions
- Intolerance toward religious customs
- Cruel religious jokes
- Degrading stereotypical comments
- Pressure to convert religions
Ability-based harassment is a type of workplace harassment directed towards individuals who either:
- Live with a disability (physical or mental) themselves
- Are acquainted with a person or people with a disability
- Use disability services (e.g. 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 covered under sex-based harassment but can look very different. 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 Age Discrimination in Employment Act to promote the employment of older people and reduce age-based harassment.
A person facing age-based harassment might be:
- Teased and insulted, especially referencing age-based stereotypes
- Left out of social activities, projects, or meetings
- Unfairly criticized for limited skills in a certain area
Unfortunately, this harassment is sometimes an attempt to wrongfully push the individual into early retirement. If done to a younger employee, it could discourage them enough that they change teams or even employers all together.
Want to save this info for later?
For a quick overview of the 11 types of workplace harassment listed here, download the cheat sheet.
Personal harassment is a form of workplace harassment that’s not based on one of the protected classes (such as race, gender, or religion). It often targets something about the victim’s work, personality, or looks, but can also be generalized behavior that offends the victim, such as telling an off-color joke.
Put simply, it’s bullying in its most basic form. It’s technically not illegal, but can be damaging nevertheless.
Examples of Personal Harassment
- Inappropraite or rude comments
- Offensive jokes
- Personal humilation
- Overly critical remarks
- Ostracizing behaviors
- Intimidation tactics
Or any other behavior that creates an intimidating and hostile work environment for the victim. What matters most is that the victim felt they were being harassed, not the other person’s intentions with their behavior.
Physical harassment, often called workplace violence, is workplace harassment that involves physical attacks or threats. In extreme cases, physical harassment may be classified as assault.
Physical gestures such as playful shoving or a soft punch to the shoulder can blur the line between appropriate or not. The person on the receiving end gets to decide 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
- Direct threats of intent to inflict harm
- Physical attacks (kicking, hitting, shoving)
- Threatening behaviors (shaking fists angrily)
- Destroying property to intimidate
Industries at Risk
Employees in some industries are at higher risk of workplace violence. These include healthcare workers, peace officers, social services employees, teachers and educators, retail staff, and public transit drivers. People who work at night, in rural or remote areas, and/or work alone also have an increased risk of physical harassment on the job.
Timely, thorough harassment investigations can protect your employees and your reputation.
Learn how to promote a safe work environment with our eBook “Conducting Effective Harassment Investigations with Case Management Software.”
Power harassment is a common form of workplace harassment that’s characterized by a power disparity between the harasser and the victim.
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 physical in the form of acts of violence.
Often 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
- Forcing them to do things outside the scope of their job (e.g. personal errands, working excessive hours, sexual favors)
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 and mental health often creates a domino effect, impacting their physical health, social life, and work life.
Examples of Psychological Harassment
- Isolating or excluding the victim or denying the victim’s presence
- Belittling or trivializing the victim’s thoughts or ideas
- Discrediting or spreading rumors about the victim
- Opposing or challenging everything the victim says
- Gaslighting the victim
- Promoting an overly competitive or hostile work environment
How psychologically safe is your workplace?
Providing psychological safety for your employees not only promotes their well-being, but can also improve your bottom line. Learn how in our free webinar with HR expert Catherine Mattice.
Employers are embracing new technology in order to appeal to younger employees and reap the benefits of a digitally connected world. For example, instant messaging applications such as Slack and Workplace by Meta offer convenience, speed, and user-friendly interface.
However, there can be a downside to this digital world.
Examples of Online Harassment
This type of harassment, also called cyberbullying, is a serious concern for employers. Among 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
As of 2021, there are 48 states with digital harassment laws that specifically mention cyberbullying. Forty-four of those states have criminal sanctions in those laws. Check out this map to see what the laws are like in your state.
Retaliation harassment, usually just referred to as retaliation, is an often-overlooked type of workplace harassment. Retaliation occurs when a person harasses someone else to get revenge and to prevent the victim from behaving in such a way again.
This can be in response to anything from a comment the harasser didn’t agree with, the victim being promoted instead of the harasser, or the victim reporting the harasser for something (such as fraud, unethical behavior, or other forms of harassment).
Retaliation can take any of the harassment forms, including physical, psychological, mental, or even sexual.
What Does Retaliation Harassment Look Like?
Most often, this type of harassment has three parts:
- Judy files a complaint about Michelle.
- Michelle finds out about the complaint and who made it.
- Michelle harasses Judy to get revenge and deter her from filing further complaints.
Michelle, in this case, would be harassing Judy as retaliation.
Sexual harassment is harassment that is sexual in nature and generally includes unwanted sexual advances, conduct, or behavior. It can be directed at the victim or just general behavior that the victim finds inappropriate.
While it’s terrible at any time or place, sexual harassment in the workplace is a form of unlawful discrimination and is taken seriously by the courts.
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 victim’s life immediately.
Examples of Sexual Harassment
- Sharing sexual photos (pornography)
- Posting sexual posters
- Inappropriate or unwanted sexual touching
- Inappropriate or unwanted sexual gestures
- Invading personal space in a sexual way
- Making sexual comments or jokes or asking sexual questions
How Big is the Sexual Harassment Problem?
Workplace sexual harassment makes up over one quarter of all the harassment charges the EEOC receives. According to the agency, states with the largest number of these charges include Alabama, Mississippi, and Georgia.
One survey reveals that 44 per cent of people have experienced harassment at work, and of those, 38 per cent were victims of sexual harassment. Even with the MeToo movement’s increased scrutiny of the issue, fear, shame, and toxic work cultures make sexual harassment an underreported and under-investigated issue.
Want to prevent sexual harassment in your organization?
Download this sexual harassment policy template to write a document that holds employees accountable and lays out clear do’s and don’ts.
Quid Pro Quo Harassment
Quid pro quo, translated to “this for that”, is a type of exchange-based sexual harassment.
In this situation, the harasser, who is often a manager or senior-level employee, may offer something of value in exchange for a sexual favor.
Quid pro quo harassment can also be a form of blackmail. For example, say Ashley claimed to take a sick day from work, but her manager, Rick, spotted her out shopping when he was grabbing an afternoon coffee. Rick might threaten to tell HR about the lie unless Ashley agrees to go on a date with him.
Examples of Quid Pro Quo Sexual Harassment
What is an example of harassing someone quid pro quo? In exchange for romantic or sexual services, the victim could:
- Receive a job offer
- Receive a promotion
- Receive a raise
- Receive opportunities (e.g. better projects, more time off)
- Receive other special treatment
- Avoid a workplace investigation (as described above)
- 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 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, they are a vendor, supplier, customer, or client of the company.
This behavior can include any of the types of harassment listed above.
Who is the Victim of Third-Party Harassment?
Victims of this type of harassment are often in “low-status” or “low-power” jobs (think: cashier, desk clerk, or sales associate).
Often, these employees are trying to break into their careers and/or working hard to make ends meet. Their position in the company, their lack of experience, and their reluctance to cause a scene (and be seen as dramatic or a “troublemaker) make them vulnerable. Because third party harassment doesn’t fit the typical narrative, it remains under-recognized. You should strive to keep your employees safe while they’re at work, no matter who the harasser is.
In some cases, employers are also legally liable for third-party harassment. According to employment lawyer Brian L. McDermott, “While employers do not have the ability to control their customers’ or vendors’ actions, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act requires employers to provide their employees with nondiscriminatory working conditions, and working conditions are not affected only by employees”, but also third parties.
He continues, “Employers are liable for third-party harassment if they ‘unreasonably fail to take appropriate corrective action reasonably likely to prevent the misconduct from recurring.’ Lapka v. Chertoff, 517 F.3d 974, 984 (7th Cir. 2008).”
Verbal harassment can be the result of personality conflicts in the workplace that have escalated beyond the casual eye roll.
Unlike discriminatory types of harassment (such as racial), verbal abuse is often not illegal. Instead, verbal harassment occurs when someone is consistently mean or unpleasant, especially when that behavior is directed toward their coworkers.
For this reason, verbal harassment can be particularly damaging, as it might go unnoticed and unresolved.
Examples of Verbal Harassment
Obvious verbal harassment behaviors include publicly or privately:
If any of these comments are aimed at someone in a protected class (because of their membership to that class), the behavior is unlawful.
Negative Effects of Verbal Abuse
Dr. Gary Namie, a workplace bullying expert, found trends in the negative effects of verbal abuse at work. It’s common, he says, to experience:
- Feelings of shame and guilt
- Loss of passions
- Negative obsession with work even on days off
- Increase blood pressure and other physical symptoms
How to Prevent Workplace Harassment
Now that you know what types of harassment plague the office, the next step is to stop it. Here are three ways.
1. Implement, Update, and /or Revive Your Policy
Whatever verb is applicable to your policy, do it.
If you don’t have a policy yet, create one. Here’s a free template we’ve put together to get you started.
If you do have a harassment policy but it’s out of date, update it. Check out these examples from top companies for inspiration.
If you have a policy but no one cares or knows it exists, dust it off and enforce it.
When you have a strong, clear policy, and it’s up to date with best practices and enforced, employees will have no reason not to abide by it. But if there’s no guiding light for right and wrong, 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. They might not know that a behavior could be considered harassment! Sharing a list of acceptable and unacceptable conduct could discourage potential bad actors and encourage victims to report.
3. Implement, Update, and/or Revive Your Internal Complaint System
A policy and training can only do so much.
To supplement your policy, and to step in when it’s not enough, an internal complaint system 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 might not come forward. Victims will fear the potential backlash, and the lack of support might be worse than the harassment they already face.
How are your employees reporting harassment right now?
If you don’t have an employee complaint form yet, you need one. Download our free template now.
How Case IQ Can Help
If you’re still simply reacting to ethics incidents and other misconduct, you’re putting your organization, your employees, and your reputation at risk.
Case IQ’s powerful case management software lets you analyze historic case data so you can take preventive measures, reducing future incidents.
Case IQ is a flexible and configurable solution that can be integrated with your existing reporting systems and third-party hotlines, ensuring no reports slip through the cracks.
Learn more about how Case IQ can reduce resolution time and improve your organization’s investigations here.