How to Identify and Prevent Workplace Harassment: A Guide for HR Leaders

May 23, 2024 | Employee Engagement, HR Trends, Professional Development

Preventing workplace harassment is critical to fostering a healthy work environment. Harassment has a profound effect on workplace climate, causing job satisfaction, morale, engagement, and productivity to plummet.

More than 1 in 5 people worldwide have experienced harassment at work, according to the International Labour Organization (ILO). The true impact is tough to measure; only half of those who reported having been victimized had even spoken up about it at work (and not necessarily through formal channels). Shame, the belief that they won’t be taken seriously, fear of ostracism, or lack of clear channels for raising grievance may prevent victims from speaking up.

Let’s discuss the definition of workplace harassment and how this serious issue affects organizations. Then, we’ll look at examples of harassment in the workplace and how to both prevent and address it.

Table of Contents

1. Workplace Harassment Definition

2. Signs of Workplace Harassment

3. Types of Workplace Harassment

4. Strategies for Preventing Workplace Harassment

5. Dealing with Workplace Harassment

Workplace Harassment Definition

“Harassment is a form of employment discrimination that violates Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967, (ADEA), and the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, (ADA),” writes the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). Workplace harassment, they explain, includes “unwelcome conduct that is based on race, color, religion, sex (including sexual orientation, gender identity, or pregnancy), national origin, older age (beginning at age 40), disability, or genetic information (including family medical history).”

Harassment can be committed by a boss, coworker, or someone who is not an employee, like a client. It typically involves a pattern of behaviour rather than isolated incidents. (However, an isolated incident should be taken seriously as well.)

Importantly, the target of the harassment isn’t the only potential victim. Anyone offended or harmed by the conduct can be considered a victim of it.

Signs of Workplace Harassment

HR managers sharing tips on how to detect signs of workplace harassment
Credit: Pavel Danilyuk/ Pexels

Before we cover specific workplace harassment examples, let’s discuss the indicators and impacts of harassment on employees.

Behavioural Indicators

How can you quickly spot harassment in the workplace? Know the behaviours that constitute harassment, along with common warning signs.

Actions to Watch For

Workplace harassment examples include behaviours like name-calling, slurs, offensive jokes, mockery, humiliation, intimidation, showing offensive pictures, unwanted physical contact, threats, assault, and other forms of interference with work, says the EEOC.

Harassment by a superior can even involve demotion or firing of the victim, denial of a promotion, and other actions that harm an employee’s career, as the Crone Law Firm explains.

Warning Signs

Look for warning signs that someone may act out toward others. For example, moodiness, poor handling of criticism, holding of grudges, social isolation, lack of care for their work, and disrespect for authority could indicate a higher likelihood of engaging in harmful behaviours, according to the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety (CCOHS).

Psychological Effects on Victims

Victims of harassment can suffer from ongoing psychological and emotional challenges. Depression, anxiety, trouble sleeping, and physical health challenges can all result. The stress of harassment can contribute to conditions like high blood pressure, as VA News reports. 

Even “low-frequency” sexual harassment can have a major effect on professional success, psychological well-being, and health. “When women were exposed to sexist comments from a male coworker, they experienced cardiac and vascular activity similar to that displayed in threat situations,” say the authors of Sexual Harassment of Women: Climate, Culture, and Consequences in Academic Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine.

In some cases, harassment and its effects push victims to leave their job—and it can take a toll for many years after the behaviour has ceased. As the BBC reports, sexual harassment can even push victims to leave their career or postpone retirement due to the disruptions they’ve experienced. It can also cause identity issues that prevent people from seeking to advance. In such ways, workplace harassment can jeopardize people’s economic security and long-term prospects.

Look for behavioural signs that a person is being harassed, like frequent absences, reduced self-confidence, avoidance of social situations, and feeling emotional or stressed.

Impact on Workplace Culture and Productivity

Workplace harassment creates a hostile environment—not only for the target but for everyone. Ongoing harassment instills the sense that no one is psychologically safe, and they may even feel physically threatened too. Further, it distracts people from their work and development. For this reason, harassment in the workplace severely undermines productivity, engagement, personal growth, and morale. 

Ignoring harassment will cause whole teams to feel demoralized. Rather than feeling a sense of synergy that allows them to create, innovate, and collaborate, they’ll feel preoccupied by stress, anger, and fear. In turn, these negative effects on workplace culture will create an environment where harassment is more likely to increase.

Types of Workplace Harassment

A manager displaying harassing behaviour toward his employee
Credit: Antoni Shkraba/ Pexels

Let’s explore several categories of harassment, along with examples of harassment in the workplace.

Sexual Harassment

Sexual harassment in the workplace encompasses various unwelcome behaviours and comments of a sexual nature. This includes verbal statements, unwanted touch or sexual advances, and pressure to engage sexually or romantically.

Here are some examples of sexual harassment in the workplace:

  • A manager tries to coerce a direct report into a sexual relationship.
  • A coworker makes inappropriate jokes about sexual orientation during group meetings.
  • An employee describes sexual fantasies to a colleague. 
  • An employee regularly touches a coworker without consent. 
  • A male employee makes disparaging remarks about women.

While women filed 78.2% of sexual harassment claims in the U.S. from 2018–2021, the aggressor and victim can be of any gender. Thirty-eight percent of women and 14% of men report having experienced sexual harassment at work.

Discriminatory Harassment

Discriminatory harassment can include harmful behaviours and statements related to race, gender, age, abilities, religion, culture, and other protected categories, like pregnancy, parenthood, and marital status. Here are a few examples:

  • Making derogatory comments or jokes about people of a particular race, gender, or age (e.g., discrediting a colleague as a “diversity hire”).
  • Making disparaging remarks about accommodations for persons with disabilities.
  • Poking fun at a person’s religious practices or cultural traditions.
  • Being hypercritical of one colleague of a specific race or ethnicity.
  • Making statements that promote stereotypes of LGBTQIA+ people.

Using slurs would be an overt example of discriminatory harassment. But often harassment manifests as repeated microaggressions. Their compounded effects can take a major toll on a person’s psychological well-being.

Bullying and Intimidation

Through bullying, one employee can seek to undermine another’s reputation, projects, or career prospects. Here are a few examples of these types of behaviours:

  • Playing pranks on another employee.
  • Spreading rumours about a coworker.
  • Belittling a colleague’s intelligence or ideas.
  • Deliberately withholding information from a team member.
  • Taking credit for a coworker’s ideas.
  • Sabotaging another employee’s project.
  • Publicly ridiculing a subordinate.
  • Excluding a coworker from group activities.

A bully may seek to ostracize one colleague from the rest of the team. Through manipulative statements or harmful actions, the bully tries to undermine her credibility or self-esteem.

Harassment can fall into multiple categories; for example, bullying can also constitute sexual harassment.

Strategies for Preventing Workplace Harassment

Employees discussing a report during a meeting
Credit: fauxels / Pexels

Prevent bullying and harassment in the workplace by establishing clear protocols and instilling a culture of respect.

Establish Clear Anti-Harassment Policies and Procedures

Develop a formal workplace harassment policy that outlines which types of behaviours are unacceptable. State examples of harassment in the workplace and clarify potential repercussions. Then, make the policy easily accessible in a central location, like an employee platform. Have leaders introduce it to teams to affirm its importance. If you have a physical office, put up relevant posters as well.

Create a clear procedure for reporting harassment, too. Tell employees exactly who to contact, and how. Have a designated HR leader who will bottom line the process of resolving a complaint.

Provide Regular Training

Offer anti-harassment training that all employees must attend. These trainings can help them learn to challenge harassment and refrain from engaging in it. Training can also deal with conflict resolution, mediation, and cross-cultural understanding. Provide separate training for managers, helping them prevent and address harassment on their teams.

Encourage Open Communication and Reporting

HR staff and leaders should talk with employees about the importance of speaking up about harassment. Emphasize that no one will be penalized for voicing concerns, affirming your commitment to ensuring their well-being. Managers should check in one one-on-one with any employees who seem stressed, asking how to assist them. 

Further, if managers believe harassment may be occurring, they should talk with the potential victim. They can use open-ended questions to dig deeper without leading the conversation, such as, “How are your relationships with team members? Do you have any concerns you want to share?” Encourage managers to turn to HR for guidance on how to handle these conversations.

Promote a Culture of Respect and Inclusivity

With a respectful, inclusive culture, harassment will be less likely to occur—and if it does, everyone will be empowered to address it. Managers can foster this culture in ways like these:

  • Setting the right example by remaining professional (e.g., avoiding off-colour jokes, frequent comments on appearance, and gossip).
  • Publicly sharing praise and appreciation for people of diverse backgrounds.
  • Challenging any inappropriate comments in the moment (or as quickly as possible), signifying that such behaviour won’t be tolerated.
  • Building strong relationships with all direct reports, so they’ll feel safe voicing their concerns.

Now, let’s delve into how to address any incidents of harassment promptly and efficiently.

Dealing with Workplace Harassment

Learning about a workplace harassment incident can feel deeply unsettling. But having protocols in place will help you handle the situation skilfully. As you take these steps, discuss your options with legal counsel as well.

Implementing Immediate Response Protocols

Provide interim protection for the target of the harassment as you investigate the claim, taking immediate steps to separate the accused from the victim. Consider transferring the accused party to a different facility or schedule, or place the accused person on a leave of absence. 

In doing so, make sure you aren’t inconveniencing the person who has been targeted. For instance, don’t assign the victim to an undesired shift or location, which could lead to a retaliation claim.

Conducting Thorough Investigations

Importantly, an employer must investigate instances of workplace harassment even if the alleged victim isn’t seeking to take formal action. Otherwise, the company can be deemed negligent.

According to the Mitchell Williams law firm, the investigator must remain impartial, focusing strictly on collecting evidence. The investigator should strive to document what happened and where, what each party did, and whether witnesses saw it. Further, an investigator should find out if any written evidence exists and whether the target knows of anyone else who has been victimized in similar ways.

Before conducting interviews with the victim, accused, and any witnesses, develop lists of questions, as the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) advises. Use open-ended questions phrased in neutral ways.

The employer should not pledge to maintain absolute confidentiality, notes SHRM. A thorough investigation will require some sharing of information. However, information should be shared strictly on a “need-to-know” basis.

Taking Appropriate Disciplinary Action

Create an action plan based on the severity of what has occurred. Actions taken can include training, counselling, and discipline. In some cases, ongoing coaching coupled with check-ins with a manager may be appropriate. If the offence is more egregious, you might consider suspension or termination. Discuss your options with your attorney.

Carefully document the behaviour and responses taken. You may need to provide the accused with a written notice of potential steps you’ll take if the behaviour doesn’t change, outlining the prohibited conduct and referencing policies.

Managers who have failed to address harassment despite knowing about it may need to undergo disciplinary procedures and training as well. Consider whether they mainly need coaching on how to identify harassment, or whether they intentionally excused harmful behaviour.

Supporting Victims

Connect victims of harassment with counselling opportunities so they can heal. Make sure your benefits platform offers an easily searchable database of mental health care providers. Provide information on how to access employee assistance programs to support their needs as well. Additionally, managers and HR should check in regularly with victims about their well-being and current needs. Survey all employees to learn whether you’re adequately supporting them in these ways, too.

Because harassment in the workplace brings serious repercussions, make sure to address it promptly. Learning about workplace harassment examples will help you recognize it in the moment. Moreover, proactively foster a respectful and inclusive work environment. Through ongoing vigilance, you’ll create a climate where people of all backgrounds, genders, and ages can thrive.

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