Workplace harassment denotes unwanted interpersonal conduct in the workplace. It takes many forms, from bullying to unwanted sexual advances. Workplace harassment violates the intent of antidiscrimination laws meant to protect workers regardless of age, gender, disability, and more. Identifying and avoiding harassment on the job is crucial to creating a healthy and productive work environment.
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Here are eight types of workplace harassment and discrimination.
1. Sexual Harassment: Most Common Type of Workplace Harassment
Sexual harassment claims are top-of-mind these days due to high profile workplace harassment allegations made by women working in media and government. According to the Civil Rights Act, sexual harassment is prohibited, regardless of whether the harasser is male or female. For example, asking a co-worker out on a date or continuing to text them after they’ve already declined a prior invitation may constitute workplace harassment.
Here are a few examples showing how this type of workplace harassment might play out.
Male Harassing Female
A male making unwanted sexual advances or a manager promising a promotion in trade for sexual favors is easy to spot as examples of sexual harassment. Most companies, especially those mandated by state law, post policies stating that sexual harassment won’t be tolerated in the workplace. However, it’s the subtle, persistent behaviors that ultimately create a hostile work environment.
Consider these types of workplace harassment:
- A manager asks his admin assistant to go to lunch. She declines. He persists.
- A sales representative from your top vendor blows kisses at your receptionist each time he arrives.
- The vice president is dating the marketing director, and she’s getting work perks that others aren’t.
- The mailroom clerk stares at female employees’ chests while delivering packages.
- Maintenance checks the water pressure in the women’s restroom a little too often.
Female Harassing Male
Sexual harassment is one of the types of harassment in the workplace that can go both ways. While it’s not a good idea to let employees who are in a romantic relationship have a direct reporting relationship, you can’t prevent workers from interacting and dating. Therefore, it’s best to require such relationships to be disclosed rather than prevented. Otherwise, the relationships may continue in secret, causing a hostile environment at work.
Here are examples of types of workplace harassment with a female as the harasser:
- Your female manager frequently requires only her male direct report to “work” late.
- A female co-worker makes a plea to her former co-worker boyfriend to get back together.
- A female worker flirts with the new hire and asks him how good he is in bed.
- A woman executive insists on hugging male co-workers, cooing softly while doing so.
- A female subordinate is taken off a project because of her manager’s jealousy
Gender Identity Examples
In many states, gender identity is a protected class as well. That includes a person’s sexual orientation and may protect their right to dress and act consistently with the gender with which they identify. Harassing a worker based on their “sex” is prohibited. It can make that person and those around them feel they are working in a hostile environment.
Consider these uncomfortable types of workplace harassment:
- A worker mocking a peer for their clothing, hair, makeup, or which restroom they use
- An employee bullying a co-worker to test his “manhood”
- Any unwanted touching, compliments, or lewd gestures
- Mimicking or talking trash to co-workers based on their LGBTQ status
- Deliberately using the wrong pronoun (he/she/him/her/it) to annoy, embarrass or call attention to a worker’s gender or gender identity
All of these types of harassment in the workplace become more serious if the person doing the harassing is a superior, like a supervisor or manager, and the person being harassed is an employee. That’s because the person being harassed is deemed to have less power and may put up with the harassment to avoid being fired, demoted, or losing ground at work. This type of harassment puts the employer and the manager at risk of an EEOC violation or lawsuit.
“While this may have been glossed over in the past, HR [human resources] departments will be kicking it up a notch, most likely with multiple trainings over the course of the year and reminders before big events such as holiday work parties. Any work-sanctioned event that provides alcohol and a looser, more relaxed setting is now considered a distinct risk, so HR may find it easiest to put employees a bit more on edge when it comes to their innocent and not-so-innocent interactions.”
―Jennifer Lee Magas, MA, JD, Magus Media Consultants
2. Pregnancy Discrimination
Although pregnancy isn’t a disability, harassing a worker or discriminating against an employee because she’s pregnant is against the law, per the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Many states have enacted further legislation to protect pregnant workers from being harassed, discriminated against, and subject to these types of harassment in the workplace.
In addition, these laws provide pregnant moms-to-be basic rights, such as to take time off for prenatal appointments or take more frequent bathroom breaks. New mothers (nursing moms) are also given rights —like a clean, quiet, private place to pump or breastfeed and ample time to do so. Harassing pregnant and new moms through verbal abuse or disciplinary tactics constitute workplace harassment.
Examples of types of workplace harassment against pregnant/new moms might include:
- Mocking or disciplining a pregnant woman for taking bathroom or breastfeeding breaks
- Insulting a pregnant woman or commenting inappropriately about her body
- Touching a pregnant woman’s belly or breasts; unwanted touching is always prohibited
- Disciplining a woman for leaving her workstation due to morning sickness
- Denying a pregnant female a job or promotion based on fear she’ll take leave
- Asking a breastfeeding mom if you “can watch”
3. Family Status Discrimination
Workplace harassment occurs when employers and workers discriminate or treat individuals differently than their peers based on their family status. For example, an employer may prefer to send a married male rather than a single mom to a weeklong conference based solely on concern for the worker’s child care needs. However, doing so constitutes discrimination under the EEOC and would likely cause the single mom to feel stress and discrimination.
Examples of workplace harassment based on family status might include:
- Inviting only the single men to a vendor-sponsored event at a strip club
- Telling a single mom that she can’t be promoted because you’d need her “on-call”
- Requiring unmarried women to set up a weekend event because the moms are busy
- Allowing only “married” couples bring their partners to a company event
- Refusing to hire or promote a worker because they have kids or a spouse
4. Age Discrimination-related Workplace Harassment
The U.S. workforce now has five generations of workers employed side by side. Each brings its own set of work ethics and values. Harassing an older worker through name-calling or bullying is prohibited. Thanks to the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA), employers also can’t discriminate in hiring, promotions, or other opportunities due solely to the age―age 40 or older―of the individual.
The types of workplace harassment that may make older workers uncomfortable:
- Telling an older worker he better not join the softball league or he’ll keel over
- Suggesting that “the older guys” take a car, because it’s a long walk to the event
- Asking an older co-worker if she has dementia because she forgot her password
- Teasing by saying things like “where are your Depends” or “go drink your Ensure”
- Statements that imply older workers can’t learn new technology
5. Harassing Americans With Disabilities in the Workplace
Disabled workers often endure awkward questions and stares while in public. However, any type of workplace harassment directed at disabled workers is prohibited as part of the ADA. That ensures all workers, including those who are disabled or disfigured, have a right to work. Employers are required to provide “reasonable accommodations” to those workers. That may be a headset, special keyboard, lower desk, or wheelchair ramp.
Here are the types of workplace harassment disabled employees shouldn’t have to endure:
- Being forced to have to get out of their wheelchair to use the bathroom
- Standing at a counter or register if they have lower back or strength issues
- Teasing about devices they wear or use, such as glasses, braces, walkers, or headsets
- Derogatory name-calling like “gimp,” “Magoo,” “Sybil,” or any unkind moniker
- Questions about their current mental state or whether they’ve taken their meds
6. Harassment Toward Protected Classes Like Race
Workers are protected under the EEOC from being discriminated against or harassed based on their background, religion, race, or country of origin, as examples. Ethnic workplace jokes went out in the last century. These kinds of behaviors and types of harassment in the workplace make entire classes of workers uncomfortable and can create a hostile work environment undermining workers’ ability to do their job.
Examples of types of workplace harassment directed at religion include:
- Mocking a person’s clothing such as a turban, burka, or head covering
- Uttering racial slurs that bring attention to a person’s skin color or religious beliefs
- Making rude jokes about another’s country of origin or religious practices
- Telling a co-worker to “try to act white” or to “stop talking in your language”
- Harassing a person’s based on their unique first or last name
Untrained interviewers may not be aware that asking job seekers nonwork-related questions about their name, religion, or country of origin may cause them to feel discriminated against. The focus of a job interview should be on the candidate’s job qualifications alone. Inappropriate questions contribute to an environment of workplace harassment that may result in the business being investigated for unfair hiring practices by the EEOC.
7. State-based Harassment & Antidiscrimination Laws
Some states and even cities protect different classes of workers from discrimination and harassment. The feds have enacted specific laws preventing employers from discriminating against a worker based on factors as diverse as their DNA, criminal background, clothing, or hairstyle.
Here are some examples of unique laws that protect workers from additional types of workplace harassment.
- In New York, employers can’t discriminate against women due to their hairstyles—a practice that could disproportionately affect women of color.
- Washington D.C., along with 16 other states, prohibits discrimination based on gender identity.
- California allows women to breastfeed their babies in any public or private place, including her desk at work.
- Some states like Minnesota protect rehabilitated convicted felons from workplace discrimination.
- Delaware prevents discrimination based on medical marijuana use.
- Connecticut protects unmarried workers in a civil union status.
- Florida offers antidiscrimination protections for those with a sickle cell trait.
- Hawaii prevents discrimination due to a job seeker’s or worker’s credit history.
Workplace harassment that crosses the line in any of these unique cases where laws protect the worker could result in an expensive lawsuit, labor law fines, and damage to your company brand reputation. Because states expand antiharassment laws continuously, multistate employers are well-advised to make their antiharassment policies as broad as possible to avoid any confusion about what’s not acceptable to do or say at work.
To ensure your antiharassment practices meet the requirements of all the states in which you employ workers, it’s best to leverage the expertise of small business HR consulting firms like Bambee. Bambee provides federal and state compliant policies, templates, and handbooks. Once you sign up, you’ll get unlimited consulting for just $99 per month.
8. Cyber Harassment & Other New Harassment Types
Just because the harassment occurs online or outside the workplace, it may still constitute workplace harassment. For example, if one worker sends lewd pictures or jokes to another on the company email or posts derogatory and discriminatory comments against a co-worker on their social media profile, that constitutes harassment. The recipient is likely to feel embarrassed, demoralized, and stressed in ways that undermine their performance back on the job.
Here are examples of cyber harassment across many discriminatory categories:
- Sending a photo of a feeble man with the caption, “Our manager needs to retire!”
- Pasting a team member’s head on to a lewd or derogatory Instagram photo.
- Sexting anyone in the workplace pictures of themselves or others.
- Comic strip porn or links to any kind of sexual or incendiary websites like the Ku Klux Klan
- Posting derogatory photos, website links or YouTube videos within a Slack channel
Workplace harassment does more than hurt your employees’ feelings and make it uncomfortable for them to work. It can cause stress, turnover and, in some cases, lawsuits against you for not protecting the worker and their rights. What makes harassment stand up in court is a persistent pattern of unwanted behavior. An accidental slip up, like calling your transsexual female worker “he,” is unlikely to result in a lawsuit. In that case, a sincere apology should suffice.
Types of Workplace Harassment & Discrimination Not Protected by Law
Although harassing employees and co-workers for their values and beliefs is never a good idea due to the stress and embarrassment it causes the worker, not all types of harassment are illegal. For example, smokers are not a protected class. A worker’s political beliefs do not prevent them from rude behavior at work. No law protects cat lovers from being snubbed by their allergy-ridden peers.
Here are examples of attributes in which the types of workplace harassment have no legal parameters:
- Smoker status: Many employers provide a smoking area, but no law protects a person’s right to smoke or prevents co-workers from commenting on it.
- Recreational drug use: Most employers prohibit drug use on the job, and some go further with drug testing policies. A worker’s choice to use recreational drugs provides them no protection at work. They could be disciplined or fired for failing a drug test.
- Cleanliness: It’s common for employers to expect workers to show up prepared. Disciplining a health or service worker for being unkempt is not considered harassment.
- Body art: In most cases, wearing jewelry or donning tattoos is not a right protected by the EEOC. Some employers require such adornments be removed or covered up so as not to distract clients or damage the employers’ brand.
- Political affiliation: While an employer may lean in one direction or another based on their business model and political affiliation, no laws protect a worker who is shunned or treated rudely based on their political leanings.
- Education: While it’s not nice to make fun of someone who has less education than others do, there’s no rule requiring employers to treat workers the same. Higher education often leads to promotion opportunities and higher pay for employees. That’s perfectly legal.
If you lack the resources to hire an HR manager to assess your EEOC compliance, consider working with an HR consultancy like Bambee for as low as $99 per month. Bambee serves as your small business “HR person” by providing you unlimited consulting and answering all your labor and employment law questions.
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)
Any behavior that makes a person feel unwelcome, uncomfortable, or bullied is likely to be considered harassment by the victim. However, these eight kinds of harassment above are those specifically prohibited by state and local laws. If you have questions beyond what’s answered below, please post them to our forum.
Are there best practices for how to prevent workplace harassment?
Like any practice you wish to implement in your workplace, it’s best to start with a written company policy that’s signed by employees and/or included as part of your employee handbook. You can prevent workplace harassment further through documentation, education, and by role modeling inclusive practices that provide a safe and productive work environment.
Check out our step-by-step guide on how to prevent workplace harassment to customize a workplace harassment prevention program suitable to your location, industry, and business culture.
How can I know if harassment is occurring?
Once you’ve communicated that you will not allow harassment in your business, it’s crucial to create a process for employees who feel harassed to report their concerns without fear of retaliation. Only when employees feel safe are they likely to let you know what’s happening. Some may quit, and you’ll only know that harassment has occurred when they claim unemployment benefits or file a lawsuit. It’s best to stay ahead of that.
Can a religious organization discriminate against nonpracticing employees?
Religious and other nonprofit organizations have some latitude to protect their membership. It wouldn’t make sense for your Catholic priest to be atheist or your breastfeeding peer coach to be male. However, there’s no reason for a marketing company that provides Christian church newsletters to justify not hiring a Muslim graphic designer. It’s more about a person’s suitability for a job role than the hiring entity. Some states exempt nonprofit organizations.
Workplace harassment shouldn’t happen, but some people act upon their own values and beliefs that come into conflict with labor laws and best practices. It’s best to be aware of your requirements as an employer so that you can prevent and eliminate discriminatory workplace practices through documentation and training. Of course, knowing what categories of harassment are common and illegal is the best place to start.
For policy templates that are downloadable easily, you can visit Rocket Lawyer’s website, customize an antiharassment policy template, and download it for just $5. You can also consider signing up for full-service access to legally compliant policies and templates for as low as $39.99 per month. Give Rocket Lawyer a try for just $5 and save yourself from potential fines and lawsuits.