What Is Workplace Harassment? (With Definition and Examples)

By Indeed Editorial Team

Published 13 April 2022

The Indeed Editorial Team comprises a diverse and talented team of writers, researchers and subject matter experts equipped with Indeed's data and insights to deliver useful tips to help guide your career journey.

Harassment is a challenging situation that can, unfortunately, occur occasionally in a workplace. Having a good understanding of what workplace harassment is may help you identify these scenarios. Learning more about workplace harassment can also help you know how to react, in case you ever encounter this situation. In this article, we define workplace harassment, explain how to notice such behaviour and show you some steps you can take if you identify this in the workplace.

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What is workplace harassment?

Workplace harassment refers to conduct in the work environment that may cause others to feel alarm or distress. Whether intentional or unintentional, such behaviour can make a particular person or group of people feel uncomfortable at work. There may be just one incident of workplace harassment or there may be multiple incidents over time.

Identifying workplace harassment

Workplace harassment can happen to any staff member in the company, so it's helpful to be prepared so you can identify it quickly if you ever notice it. It may occur face-to-face, over email, text messaging or social media. To help you protect yourself against workplace harassment and ensure you don't make others feel uncomfortable or unsafe, it's important to understand what behaviour constitutes workplace harassment. Here are some types of behaviour which people may generally consider to be workplace harassment:

  • Verbal harassment: This form of harassment generally involves words. For example, there may be inappropriate jokes and comments about a person, and the harasser may direct inappropriate remarks and language at a person or a group of people.

  • Behavioural harassment: Behavioural harassment is more related to actions than to words. There are various forms, such as stalking, physical harassment or making inappropriate gestures at others.

  • Cyberbullying: Bullying which occurs online may constitute cyberbullying, for example, bullying through email messages or bullying through online chat messages.

  • Power harassment: Power harassment occurs when one abuses their power when interacting with colleagues. This could occur at various hierarchies, such as when a superior uses their position to make unfair demands of their subordinates.

What to do if you spot workplace harassment

You may wish to be alert to workplace harassment and act quickly if you notice it. This can help maintain a safe and comfortable working environment for the entire organisation. Here are some steps which you may wish to take if you notice someone harassing your colleagues at work or you notice you're the target of such harassment:

Report the incident

Companies generally have a harassment prevention policy or a whistle-blowing policy for harassment at the workplace. For example, there may be a company protocol on steps to take if someone in the company is the target of harassment. If you are subject to harassment at work or notice someone harassing another at the workplace, consider following the steps in these policies to report that person. Ensure that you report the incident to the right person so that news of the incident is only for those who can be privy to it.

For example, you may reach out to the human resources department or welfare committee of the company. These individuals are generally under an unspoken promise to maintain confidentiality about matters involving other colleagues. As such, it may be ‘safer' to approach these individuals about what you've witnessed or experienced. Alternatively, if you feel more comfortable speaking to someone you work with, consider sharing the encounters with your supervisor or other team members.

Keep a record of the harassment

It's important to keep a record of the harassment to substantiate any complaints you may wish to make. For example, you can keep copies of any harassing emails, text messages or other written forms of harassment. Alternatively, you may wish to record some of the verbal harassment. If the harassment is physical, having video evidence may also be helpful.

In each instance of harassment, it's crucial to note down the day, date, time and location of the harassment. Write down who the harasser is and the people who may bear witness to the harassment. Be clear about the details of the harassment and document this information as soon as possible to avoid forgetting any key details about the incidents. Keep and maintain records of these harassment instances properly, and you may wish to organise them chronologically.

Create a distance

Another strategy to manage workplace harassment is to distance yourself from the harasser. For example, avoid being in the same room as them when others aren't around. Consider speaking to them over the phone, over a video call or over text messages and emails instead of face-to-face. This could reduce the instances of behavioural workplace harassment. If you are to be in the harasser's presence, ask a trusted friend or colleague to be present in the room so that they're able to witness any incidents that occur.

If the harasser is outside the company, such as a client, consider whether it's possible to change the person in charge of the project or the person liaising with the client. A change in the point of contact may help to alleviate your predicament and stop the harassment from continuing. Discuss with your colleagues and managers how this transition can take place to minimise any impact on the project itself. Asking if you can hand over the project to a colleague is another possible way to create a distance between yourself and the harasser.

Confront the harasser

If you're comfortable with doing so, consider meeting the harasser to confront them about their actions. Only do this if you feel safe doing so, and you believe the other person may be acting unintentionally. Sometimes pointing out how they make you feel may be enough to stop them. Be polite but firm and explain how their behaviour and actions make you feel. It could be a misunderstanding of either party, and such an open method of communication may help to resolve matters. If there's an issue to solve, you may wish to suggest concluding the issue amicably.

If you're a bystander and not involved in the situation, you may also wish to confront the harasser about their actions and ask them to stop. It may be good to discuss this approach with the target of the harassment before confronting the harasser to avoid making matters worse for the target.

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Take legal action

Another possible solution is to consider consulting a lawyer or other legal professionals to understand your options when you're the subject of workplace harassment. They may advise you to lodge a report against the harasser or use other legal means to put an end to the behaviour. The lawyers or legal professionals may also have tips on how to collect evidence, which you may rely on in building your case against the harasser later on.

Tips to create a positive work environment

A safe and positive work environment may increase productivity and employee happiness. A supportive, positive and safe work environment is one in which colleagues are team players and polite to each other. Everyone has the responsibility to contribute to a good working environment, and here are some ideas to create such an ideal workplace:

Be supportive towards others

One way to foster a good working environment is to be supportive towards others. This may take the form of expressing appreciation through compliments and other methods. For example, you may write a short thank-you note to a colleague from a different department to thank them for working on the project with you. Alternatively, you may choose to give a small gift to a colleague or team member to show your appreciation and care for them. Small gestures go a long way toward creating a happy work environment that fosters positive interactions among staff members.

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Be a good team player

You may work in teams in the office or even across teams for inter-team projects. Being a good team player when you can means helping your colleagues with their tasks if they require it. Adapting to others, being flexible and trying your best to accommodate different working styles may amplify your nature as a team player. All these go towards building rapport and trust between parties at work and can help to develop more synergy in the office.

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