The term harassment refers to unwanted behavior that involves persistently threatening, annoying, or alarming someone, sometimes to the point that the target is put into a hostile situation and fears for his or her safety. Examples of harassment include such things as racial epithets, slurs, lewd propositions, and unwanted contact. Harassment can become so bad that it can be deemed a criminal offense ranging from a misdemeanor violation to a class E felony. To explore this concept, consider the following harassment definition.

Definition of Harassment


  1. The act of persistently bothering, disturbing, or threatening someone, often to the point where he fears for his safety, or is pressured into going along with the behavior in order to keep his job.


1610-1620    French, Middle French      harasser

Workplace Harassment

There is a fine line between being playful in the workplace, and being downright offensive.  Workplace harassment may take several forms, and employees are protected by law from offensive behaviors. As an example of workplace harassment, a co-worker or supervisor may frequently and continually engage in what he sees as “joking around,” but which is found to be mean-spirited, insulting, or intimidating. This may be considered to be verbal harassment, and includes such things as making inappropriate or derogatory jokes, slurs, name-calling, and other insults.

Workplace harassment may also take the form of physical harassment, which includes such acts as hitting or shoving, unwanted touching, groping, or grabbing. Such workplace harassment may be perpetrated by a co-worker or supervisor, whose actions serve to intimidate, threaten, or humiliate their fellow employees.

Sexual Harassment

Sexual harassment is just one of many different examples of harassment, being defined as unwelcome sexual advances, such as requests for sexual favors, or verbal or physical behavior that is sexual in nature. Someone may experience sexual harassment when trying to apply for a job, to get into a particular school, or in other situations wherein the offender tries to use sex as currency. The key word here is “unwelcome,” when determining whether or not the offender’s advances are truly harassing behavior.

Sexual harassment was not recognized as sex discrimination in the workplace by the federal courts until the ’70s. This was because sexual harassment was thought to be isolated incidents of flirtation, rather than a recurring problem. Now employers can be sued if they take part in sexually harassing behavior.

Sexual Harassment Examples in the Workplace

Harassment in the workplace is commonly of a sexual nature, and involves a supervisor taking advantage of an employee. The following are examples of workplace harassment of a sexual nature:

Demand for Sexual Acts by a Supervisor

An example of sexual harassment being brought to the Supreme Court’s attention happened in 1986, when a former employee of Meritor Savings Bank, Mechelle Vinson, sued the Vice President of the Bank, Sidney Taylor, on charges that he had sexually harassed her regularly over the course of her four years of employment with the bank.

Vinson stated that she was coerced into having sexual intercourse with Taylor about “40 or 50 times” during her employment in order to keep her job, and that Taylor would regularly demand sexual favors from Vinson while they were at work. She also testified that Taylor would touch her in public, would follow her into the women’s restroom, and that he forcibly raped her on several occasions, and repeatedly exposed himself to her. Vinson said the harassment finally stopped when she started steadily dating someone, and she was eventually fired after taking an excessive leave of absence from her job.

Vinson argued that she was forced to work in a “hostile working environment,” and that she was protected under, which prohibits unlawful discrimination. The bank’s defense was that the executives didn’t know what their supervisors were doing, but that if Vinson’s claims were true, then the bank certainly did not consent to Taylor’s behavior, and should not be held responsible.

The Supreme Court unanimously decided that Vinson had provided enough proof to show that she had sustained a “tangible economic loss” stemming from sexual harassment, but it also held that the executives of a business are not responsible by default for the conduct of their supervisors. That being said, the Court ruled that neither are businesses automatically protected from liability, simply because they claim they did not know what was going on at the lower levels. As a result, supervisors must be regularly evaluated by their superiors so that their superiors are kept abreast of their supervisors’ conduct in the workplace.

Same-Sex Sexual Harassment in the Workplace

While sexual harassment in the workplace is typically assumed to be between a man and a woman, same-sex sexual harassment also exists, and has been an understated problem in the past. An example of sexual harassment of a same-sex nature occurred in 1997, when Richard Raab, an employee of 84 Lumber Company, harassed three new employees by grabbing their genitals and buttocks, exposing himself to them, and asking them to perform oral sex on him, telling them they would have to seek new employment if they refused. Two of the victims reported the sexual harassment to the Area Manager, to no avail. All three employees ultimately quit their jobs and sued the company on charges of sexual harassment.

The trial court ruled that Raab’s behavior was not romantic in nature, nor was it rooted in lust or true sexual desire, but that it was more about degrading and humiliating these three men. The state’s Supreme Judicial Court agreed that Raab’s behavior was “revolting and positively outrageous,” and that it created an intimidating, offensive, and hostile work environment for the Plaintiffs. Raab’s actions constituted a prime example of sexual harassment in the workplace.

Harassment Laws

Harassment laws vary by state, though a key factor in determining whether a person’s behavior amounts to harassment is whether the behavior was unwelcome. The behavior must also be legitimately abusive, in that it is both serious enough and intrusive enough to create a hostile and/or abusive environment for the victim. Required elements for evaluating suspect behavior according to harassment laws of most states include:

  • Frequency of the unwanted behavior
  • Severity of the behavior
  • Whether the behavior was truly a threat to the victim’s person, or whether it was intentional humiliating
  • Whether the behavior was an unreasonable distraction to the victim’s work or personal environment
  • How the behavior affected the victim psychologically
  • Whether the offender holds a position of authoritative over the victim

Harassment laws generally take into account the intent of the perpetrator, frequency of the harassment, and whether the perpetrator’s actions would make a reasonable person to fear that he might be physically harmed. This may stem from being followed, being physically attacked, or threatened in such a way as to scare or seriously annoy the victim.

In most states, the crime of aggravated harassment is a serious crime, involving the use of electronic communication or telephone calls that are exchanged solely to intimidate or to annoy the victim, and which have no legitimate basis. This crime may also involve damaging the victim’s property, or targeting the victim due to race, religion, color, ethnicity, or other protected attribute.

Quid Pro Quo Harassment

Quid pro quo harassment is a form of workplace harassment, in which an employment decision is made based on whether or not the victim is willing to accept the advances of the offender. Examples of such behavior usually come in the form of requests for sexual favors or unwelcome conduct that is religious in nature. Quid pro quo behavior is usually exhibited by someone who has the power to demote, fire, or promote an employee.

An example of quid pro quo harassment is the supervisor who fires an employee or denies him or her a promotion simply because the victim refuses to accept the supervisor’s unwelcome sexual advances, or when a supervisor demands that an employee participate in a religious activity as a condition of his or her employment. Because of this give-and-take element, quid pro quo harassment is also referred to as “tit-for-tat” harassment.

Cyber Harassment

Cyber harassment, or “cyberbullying,” is when someone bullies someone over the internet. This can be done in a chat room, over social media or email, or through text messages or a website. Electronic harassment and cyberbullying are essentially considered to be one and the same. In recent years, cyber harassment has become particularly rampant among teens, though even adults engage his this type of damaging behavior. While historically, bullying required an offender to engage the victim face-to-face, this is no longer the case, as bullies can hide behind a computer screen, or hurl insults and damaging remarks from their phones.

As is the case on many social media platforms, a cyberbully may not even personally know the person he is bullying. It is, in fact, common for cyberbullies to recruit other people to gang up on the target – this is referred to as a “digital pile-on.”

Cyberbullies have been known to hurl personal or defamatory information about a victim over the ether, where it becomes permanently damaging, as information and photos uploaded to the internet live on forever in cyberspace, even if the victim notices it and attempts to delete it. Chances are that someone has already saved the information before it could be erased, or those who are particularly internet-savvy can unearth it from a cached web page.

Cyber harassment has become a significant problem in recent years because a bully can enjoy complete anonymity while making a victim’s life completely miserable. Additionally, while this behavior is characterized as bullying in the media, the behavior often rises to the level of criminal behavior, such as stalking. However, the term “bullying” leads people to believe that what is happening in electronic forums is simply horseplay, when in reality it is actually much worse.


Cyberstalkers commonly go after a target’s reputation, employment, or safety. They may attempt to persuade others to go against the victim as well in an effort to stop the victim from participating in online forums. Actually in existence is a Trolling Magnitude (TM) Scale that shows the difference between cyberbullying and cyberstalking. The TM scale shows that, while cyberbullying is often more tactical than cyberstalking, the main goal of cyberstalking is to control the victim, and limit or eliminate his or her online activity.


Trolls and cyberbullies cannot always be considered one and the same. While some trolls do participate in cyberbullying, others engage in behavior that is less harmful. It is easy to categorize trolling as cyberbullying because it often comes off as harassment, especially if the behavior becomes repetitive, but cyber trolls will typically take part in activities that amuse themselves only, without deliberately setting out to hurt anyone’s feelings. Typically though, the definition of trolling does include cyberbullies, who are more condescending and hurtful to their victims.

Police Harassment

Police harassment is another example of harassment that can be carried out effectively because it is perpetrated by an authoritative figure. Commonly referred to in a legal sense as “police misconduct,” police harassment refers to an abuse of power by a police officer, for the purpose of engaging in inappropriate or illegal activities.

Examples of police harassment include false imprisonment or arrest, falsification of evidence, witness tampering, and police brutality, to name a few. Police brutality has been a particularly prominent news topic in recent years, having been brought into a glaring spotlight with the Black Lives Matter movement. While some officers have denied the existence of a “code of silence,” wherein police officers do not “rat out” colleagues who are guilty of misconduct, the code was actually proven to exist back in 2005.

Rodney King Trials

An example of police harassment that gained an abundance of media attention was the Rodney King incident that took place in 1991, in Los Angeles, California. After being involved in a high-speed car chase, Rodney King was apprehended by police, four of whom who beat him badly, while other officers stood by and allowed it to happen. A witness by the name of George Holliday filmed the beating from his balcony, and his footage quickly became known worldwide in connection with the case. This case shed much-needed light on how police officers often treated minorities in the United States.

Ultimately, three of the four officers were acquitted on all charges, and the fourth was acquitted on the count of assault with a deadly weapon, though the jury could not reach a verdict on the count of use of excessive force. Deadly riots emerged in response to the acquittals, in which 55 people were killed, and more than 2,000 more were injured, before the California national guard finally stepped in to break up the violence.

Suspect Dead after Police Chokehold

Another example of police harassment can be found in the case of Eric Garner, a controversial case wherein Garner was killed during physical restraint by police. Garner was approached when police suspected him of selling what are known as “loosies,” or single cigarettes that are sold illegally and without tax. He was put in a chokehold during his arrest, as the officer pushed him facedown into the ground.

Garner stated eleven times that he couldn’t breathe and eventually lost consciousness. The police defended their decision not to give Garner CPR because he was still breathing on his own, and when the ambulance arrived, no one administered emergency medical aid to Garner. Garner died on the way to the hospital after suffering a heart attack.

Related Legal Terms and Issues

  • False Imprisonment – The unlawful restraint of a person within a limited area, depriving him of his right to freedom of movement. False or unlawful imprisonment applies to that committed by private individuals as well as governmental agencies.
  • False Arrest – The act of physically detaining a person without a legal right to do so.
  • Falsification of Evidence – The act of tampering with, or fraudulently creating evidence for use in a legal proceeding.
  • Protected Attribute – A person’s traits, such as race, sex, marital status, religion, gender identity, or disability, for which the individual is protected by law against discrimination.
  • Witness Tampering –  The act of attempting to influence or change a witness’ testimony in legal proceedings.

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