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Defining Workplace Harassment
Overview

If your experience was unwelcome, unwanted, and based in bias, then it was harassment.

That said, the government defines harassment in its own specific ways. This resource focuses on United States laws. If you are a US citizen living abroad, contact your local embassy. If you’re not a US citizen, look for your local laws.

Protected Classes

US federal, state, and city governments don’t always define harassment exactly the same. At minimum, however, the federal government lists the following as “protected classes,” or groups protected from discrimination at workplaces:

  • Race
  • Color
  • Sex (including pregnancy, sexual orientation, and gender identity)
  • National origin
  • Age (40+) 
  • Disability
  • Genetic information (including family medical history)

 

This means that whether you’re an applicant, employee, or former employee, you can file a complaint with the city, state, and/or federal government if you experience harassment based on any of these categories at a workplace. Some states and cities cover additional forms of bias, including bias based on immigration status. To see what groups are considered “protected” in your state, check out local laws (you can search online for “protected classes in [STATE or CITY]”) or speak with a lawyer. 

For each protected class, the US government has different standards for how it defines harassment. There are two types:

1. Quid Pro Quo: When enduring harassment becomes a condition for employment. For example, a manager or someone else with authority promises a work-related benefit (like a pay raise, promotion, or more favorable schedule) in exchange for a romantic or sexual favor. 

2. Hostile Work Environment: A work environment is considered “hostile” when the harassment is ongoing.

Even if it doesn’t rise to a level of what the government may define as harassment, your employer may want to put a stop to these behaviors. Check out your employee manual or talk to your HR representative to learn how your company specifically defines harassment.

The Spectrum of Disrespect

Behaviors like rolling one’s eyes at a coworker out of disrespect, taking credit for other people’s work, or excluding others are all on what we call “the spectrum of disrespect.”

The idea behind the “spectrum of disrespect” is that if you have a workplace culture where speaking over people is considered acceptable, it soon enables a workplace culture where shaming or humiliation, often in the form of jokes, are seen as a little more acceptable. And when you have a workplace culture where this kind of shaming or humiliation are considered acceptable, it eventually enables a workplace culture where behaviors that we might traditionally consider harassment – like inappropriate comments or sexual innuendos – are seen as acceptable. 

Implicit Bias

It’s important to note that not all forms of disrespect are based in bias. Things like stress, differing communication styles, and competition can all create disrespectful workplace dynamics as well. But bias can be one of many drivers of disrespectful behavior – and sometimes, it can drive disrespect in ways that we may not be able to see. 

We often think of harassment as a result of explicit bias, such as stereotypes like “women aren’t as smart as men.” But it’s rarely this clear cut. Implicit bias is an unconscious form of bias, making it tricky to diagnose and even trickier to uproot inside of workplaces. 

What are some examples of implicit bias in action?

…When a white person at a conference lunch is more likely to sit at a table full of white people rather than people of color, even though this person has never made explicit comments that are biased against people of color, that’s implicit bias. 

…When a man is more likely to interrupt his coworkers who are women rather than those who are men, even though he considers himself to be a feminist, that’s implicit bias. 

Implicit bias is something that almost all of us exhibit to some degree – not because we are “bad” people, but because we live in a culture that, despite great advancement, is still inequitable.

Implicit bias means that although everyone can experience disrespect in the workplace at one time or another, certain people tend to experience it more…such as women, people of color, LGBTQ+ individuals, and folks from other marginalized groups. Implicit bias can drive harassment that is less obvious to witnesses and to the person doing the harassing – but that doesn’t mean the harassment is less obvious to the person being harassed. In fact, harassment rooted in implicit bias can have a variety of harmful effects on the person harmed: they could experience anxiety, an inability to focus, absenteeism, a drop in productivity and creativity…and ultimately, their workplace might not be able to retain them.

OUR UPCOMING TRAININGS

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Upcoming training

Four Strategies to Mitigate Implicit Bias - Individual Pathway

February 22, 2024

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Upcoming training

Four Strategies to Mitigate Implicit Bias - Individual Pathway

March 25, 2024

1:00 pm - 2:30 pm EST

A portrait of a group of people standing in front of a blue partition wall, smiling.

Upcoming training

Four Strategies to Mitigate Implicit Bias - Individual Pathway

February 22, 2024

1:00 pm - 2:30 pm EST

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YOU ARE POWERFUL

Remember, everyone can do something. At this time in our history, it is even more important that we show up for one another as active bystanders. Research shows that even a knowing glance can significantly reduce trauma for the person who is targeted. One of the most important things we can do is to let the person who is targeted know, in some way, however big or small, that they are not alone.

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