Harassment Definition: What is a Hostile Work Environment?

Harassment Definition: What is a Hostile Work Environment?

Every employee deserves to be treated with respect. Unfortunately, harassment still occurs in the workplace, causing employees to be treated uncomfortably. There is workplace harassment in all work environments in the United States. Understanding workplace harassment is essential if you want to prevent a hostile work environment, which can range from bullying to discrimination.

In this post, we’re going to cover the meaning of harassment and what a hostile work environment may look like.

What is the Definition of Harassment?

Harassment is any behavior, whether physical, verbal, written, or otherwise, that is unwanted and unwelcome and may offend, threaten, intimidate, or demean an individual. Harassment can cause nuisance, alarm, or substantial emotional distress without a legitimate reason. Harassment can be discrimination or abuse of various types. Often, harassment continues beyond the first incident and reoccurs on multiple occasions.

What Constitutes Harassment?

So, what is considered harassment? According to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), harassment can include offensive jokes, slurs, epithets or name-calling, physical assaults or threats, intimidation, ridicule or mockery, insults or put-downs, gross objects or pictures, and interference with work performance.

In the workplace, harassment happens in a variety of situations, including:

  • The harasser could be the victim’s supervisor, a supervisor in another area, an agent of the employer, a co-worker or a non-employee.
  • The victim does not have to be the person harassed. Anyone who is impacted by the offensive behavior could be a victim.
  • Unlawful harassment can happen even when the victim is not financially harmed or fired.

What is a Hostile Work Environment?

A hostile work environment is one in which another employee's ability to do their work is negatively or significantly impacted by the actions and words of a manager, supervisor, or coworker.

To be considered a hostile work environment, it must meet specific legal criteria, according to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). An environment can become negative when:

  • Unwelcome conduct, or harassment, is based on race, sex, pregnancy, religion, national origin, age, disability, or genetics
  • Harassment is continued and long-lasting
  • Behavior is severe enough that the environment becomes intimidating, offensive, or abusive

Remember, you are protected by law from the harasser, and you are also protected from your employer failing to protect you.

Types of Harassment

It is not always easy to identify workplace harassment because there are many different forms of harassment. Understanding the different types and signs of workplace harassment can help you spot it when it affects you or a coworker.

Discriminatory Harassment

Contrary to other types of harassment, like physical or verbal harassment, discriminatory harassment is defined by its intent rather than how it is executed. This includes behaviors displaying racial, gender, religious, and disability-based harassment.

Verbal Harassment

Verbal harassment can be a danger to both your career and health. It involves demeaning comments, offensive gestures, and irrational criticism. It may include insults, slurs, unwelcome jokes, and harmful remarks.

Psychological Harassment

Like verbal harassment, psychological harassment uses exclusionary strategies like withholding information or gaslighting but in a more concealed manner. These behaviors are meant to mentally debilitate the victim, undermine their self-worth, and remove their confidence.

Digital Harassment

Digital harassment, such as cyberbullying, occurs online and can be equally harmful to in-person bullying. It is the newest type of harassment and occurs across different platforms. With social media becoming more common in the workplace, it's easier to harass others via the many digital devices.

Physical Harassment

The severity of physical harassment at work varies. Moderate unwanted gestures, from touching an employee's clothing, hair, face, or skin to more severe behaviors, such as physical assault, threats of violence, and damage to personal property, can all fall under this category.

Sexual Harassment

Unwanted sexual advances, including inappropriate touching, sexual jokes, exchanging pornography, sending sexual messages, or asking for sexual favors in exchange for a promotion or job security, are all considered sexual harassment. Even though it may seem obvious, it’s not always easy to identify sexual harassment.

Personal Harassment

This type of harassment in the workplace isn't driven by the protected class the victim belongs to. It includes any behavior that creates an offensive or intimidating work environment. Personal harassment can present itself in many forms, like inappropriate remarks, hurtful jokes, intimidation tactics, demeaning behaviors, and more.

Other forms of harassment that are important to understand include:

  • Power harassment
  • Retaliation harassment
  • Third-party harassment
  • Prevention harassment
  • Quid pro quo harassment

Examples of Harassment in the Workplace

While verbal and psychological harassment is the most common forms of harassment, there are other severe types, including physical and sexual harassment. Workplace harassment of any kind is prohibited. They impact a worker's performance, comfort, and safety at work and expose an organization to legal risk if harassment is not handled appropriately.

  • Examples of different types of harassment in the workplace may look like this:
  • A supervisor or coworker who physically brushes up against an employee whenever walking past them.
  • A supervisor or coworker repeatedly removes and hides the equipment and/or materials from a victim's workstation, preventing them from performing their job duties.
  • A worker of one race whose workstation is next to a worker of another repeatedly, even after being asked to remove it, posts racially offensive imagery.
  • A supervisor who consistently rejects an employee's request to attend staff meetings or refuses to inform the employee about company social events or opportunities for advancement if they are of another race or sexual orientation, etc.

These are just a few examples of workplace harassment.

Moreover, the following questions should help you decide whether a situation or environment is considered hostile:

  • Was the behavior in question unwelcome?
  • Did the incidents occur multiple times over a while?
  • Did the incidents occur against someone whose class is protected?

You should report an incident if you believe someone is creating a hostile work environment and causing feelings of discomfort. For more information on hostile work environments, visit the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) website.

Interested in harassment training for yourself or your employees? Take our online harassment prevention training course.