Workplace Harassment

Workplace harassment, also referred to as “workplace mistreatment,” or “workplace bullying,” occurs when a person is harassed by another employee based on his or her race, religion, sex, national origin, age, disability, or sexual orientation. Workplace harassment includes any unwanted conduct towards another person in the workplace, and is against the law in all states. To explore this concept, consider the following workplace harassment definition.

Definition of Workplace Harassment


  1. Harassment that occurs within the workplace, in violation of federal law.


Mid 20th century          U.S. law

What is Workplace Harassment

Workplace harassment occurs when a person is put down, shown hostility, or the recipient of unwanted conduct from a fellow employee or supervisor. When a person engages in workplace harassment, he often does so with the intent of making the victim feel uncomfortable. For legal purposes, workplace harassment is based on the victim’s national origin, age, religion, disability, sexual orientation, gender, or other characteristic that is protected by state and federal laws.

Harassment in the workplace is a type of employment discrimination, which violates the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Title VII of the Act stipulates that no employee of, or person seeking employment by, a company of more than 15 employees can be discriminated against based on his religion, sex, race or age. Other federal and state laws have been put into place to protect employees against discrimination or harassment based on nation origin, disability, gender identity, marital status, and more.

For Example:

John is continuously preaching to his coworkers about religious matters, going to far as to give them pamphlets, and leaving bibles on their desks. John is asked repeatedly by the coworkers to stop these behaviors, to no avail. This is an example of workplace harassment, as the coworkers are offended by John’s behavior, insisting that they listen to, or possibly accept his religious beliefs.

One incident, such as making one comment, does not typically constitute harassment, as the offensive behavior must be persistent. The behavior must also upset the person on the receiving end. If a person is not offended or not bothered by the employee’s actions, it may not be considered harassment. Workplace harassment can be either physical or emotional in nature. Emotional harassment is more often referred to as “bullying,” and is more likely to go unnoticed than physical harassment.

Sexual Harassment in the Workplace

Sexual harassment in the workplace refers to any unwelcome conduct or advances that are sexual in nature. Certain behaviors may be considered sexual harassment in the workplace when they interfere with a person’s job, create an offensive work environment, or intimidate the employee victim. Such behaviors may range greatly, from making or distributing offensive jokes, to inappropriate touching, or pressuring someone to engage in a personal or sexual relationship.

Sexual harassment is a serious problem that does not only victimize women, as many men are victims of sexual harassment in the workplace as well. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 refers to two types of sexual harassment in the workplace:

Quid Pro Quo

Quid Pro Quo harassment occurs when a person in a position of authority, usually a supervisor, requires employees to tolerate inappropriate behavior that is sexual in nature as a condition of obtaining or keeping a job, or a job benefit, including raises and promotions. A quid pro quo claim need only consist of a single occurrence. For instance, a superior who demands that an employee kiss him in exchange for a promotion has committed quid pro quo sexual harassment.

Hostile Work Environment

Refers to a pattern of conduct that is unwelcome, sexual in nature, and pervasive or unchecked, or is severe enough to establish an offensive or abusive work environment. While quid pro quo harassment requires only a single act, actions constituting a hostile work environment must be frequent, ongoing, and/or severe in nature. In determining whether a hostile work environment exists, and the character of the harassment, the court considers the following elements:

  • Whether the harasser was a supervisor or co-worker
  • Frequency of the conduct
  • Whether the conduct was verbal, physical, or other
  • Whether the conduct was blatantly offensive, or clearly hostile in nature
  • Whether the conduct was directed at a single victim, or was directed at more than one person
  • Whether there was a single harasser, or if others joined in the harassment

Example of Sexual Harassment in the Workplace

Jane works for a large law firm as a paralegal, primarily working with attorney Max. After Jane had been with the firm for about a year, Max began making sexual advances toward her. He began standing too close to her, making sexual innuendos, and sexual comments and suggestions toward her. Max even began groping Jane when they were alone in either his or her office, or in some other isolated location, such as the copy room. Jane asked him several times to stop these behaviors, but he continued.

Jane went to human resources and reported Max’s actions, telling them that she was extremely uncomfortable with his actions, and that she is afraid to be more forceful with him because she might get fired. This example of workplace harassment involves sexual harassment. It is illegal, and the firm is responsible, now that Jane has reported it to human resources, to ensure it does not continue, and that Jane is not penalized for reporting it.

Workplace Harassment Laws

Both federal and state workplace harassment laws seek to protect employees from being harassed based on certain factors, such as their gender, religion, or ethnicity. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) describes workplace harassment laws, which make employers liable for harassment in certain situations. These include:

  • Harassment perpetrated by a superior figure
  • Harassment that results in an employee being fired, demoted, or losing benefits
  • Harassment that creates a hostile work environment
  • Harassment perpetrated by an employee, of which the employer is aware, and fails to immediately correct

Example of Workplace Harassment Liability

Mary works in an auto repair shop as the customer service representative and accountant. She is subjected to a constant slew of sexual jokes, innuendos, and inappropriate touching, by her two male co-workers. Mary complained of the actions to their supervisor several times, though he always chuckled and said “they’re harmless, ignore them,” failing to take action against the employees. In this example of workplace harassment, the supervisor can be held liable for damages, as he did do what workplace harassment laws require: putting corrective measures in place.

How to Handle Workplace Harassment

A person experiencing workplace harassment, or witnessing it perpetrated against another, may wonder how to handle workplace harassment. Employees can take certain steps to protect themselves, and to ensure unwanted behavior stops if it occurs. Many employers provide new employees with an employee handbook, which provides company information, instructions, and policies, including policies on workplace harassment.

In learning how to handle workplace harassment, it is important to understand that the first step is to clearly tell the offender to stop his unwanted or offensive behavior. If the victim is scared or feels intimidated, he or she should seek help from a superior or human resource worker. All harassment should be documented thoroughly, including dates of incidents, name of the harasser(s), witnesses, and descriptions of the actions. This may include keeping a log of incidents, keeping offensive emails, text messages, voicemails, and other communications. It may also include making and keeping copies of offensive postings, such as posters, cartoons, and signs, that are patently offensive.

If the offender fails to stop the behavior when asked, the victim should report the conduct to his supervisor or human resource worker. This gives notice to the employer that an investigation needs to be done. If the offensive behavior still does not stop, the victim should again report the other party’s actions to the supervisor or human resources.

If, after following the appropriate chain of command in reporting workplace harassment, the issue is not resolved, the employee can file a formal complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. While it is not required, victims of workplace harassment may also hire an attorney experienced in labor law, harassment, and discrimination to assist with complaints and even lawsuits.

Equal Employment Opportunity Commission

The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission is a federal agency responsible for enforcing civil rights laws as they apply to workplace discrimination. The EEOC not only investigates complaints of discrimination based on race, color, national origin, religion, sex, age, disability, or genetic information, but they investigate reports of employer retaliation. The EEOC is also charged with mediating and settling discrimination complaints.

Workplace Harassment Training

Workplace harassment training is an important part of doing business, as harassment and discrimination claims can have a lasting impact on any company, by increasing costs, and damaging its reputation. In order to prevent problems of workplace harassment from arising, employers should take part in, and provide for its employees, workplace harassment training. Knowing just how to handle claims of harassment could prevent a civil judgment against the employer in a lawsuit for workplace harassment.

The Supreme Court has ruled that training employees, and developing a preventative policy, can be used as an affirmative defense in workplace harassment cases.

Some states require workplace harassment training, and some require separate training for sexual harassment in the workplace. In order to implement workplace harassment training, employers should adopt a policy that complies with state and federal laws. This policy should then be posted in the workplace, and handed out to employees. The EEOC provides special assistance for employers seeking to create such policies, as well as help in training.

Human resource staff and all supervisors should be trained on what constitutes workplace harassment, as well as the steps that need to be taken if it occurs. Employees should also be trained on how to identify the harassment and the steps they can take to prevent or stop it.

Workplace Harassment Example

When she retired from the Air Force, after 20 years, and with the rank of Master Sergeant, Sandra Robertson was hired by Hunter Panels in Smithfield, Pennsylvania, to use her expertise in inventory and equipment management. Robertson very quickly rose to become the only female supervisor at the plant, which makes thermal insulation panels.

During her time with the company, Robertson was subjected to repeated harassment and gender-based discrimination, with male colleagues calling her “Big-Girl,” in reference to her height, making obscene gestures toward her, and engaging in other offensive acts. In addition, Robertson was unhappy that she was making much less than the former male employee who had held her position, though she had more experience.

Robertson reported the harassment to a male superior, who told her she was losing her mind. The harassment continued, as management failed to put a stop to it. In January 2012, Robertson had received a “stellar evaluation,” but a few months later, after again complaining about the ongoing harassment, she was fired. While the termination was ostensibly for her “management style,” Robertson strongly believed it was due to her complaints of harassment.

After being fired, Robertson began suffering depression, as she was unable to find a new job. She filed a civil lawsuit against the company after her termination, alleging she was terminated in retaliation for her complaints of workplace harassment, and claiming she experienced gender discrimination, a hostile work environment, and violations under Title VII and the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act.

At trial, the jury heard testimony of employee witnesses that Robertson was an exceptional supervisor. One employee testifying to her competence also testified that he had been called a “spineless [expletive deleted] traitor” by a male supervisor because he asked to be transferred to Robertson’s department. Expert witnesses determined that Hunter Panels, and its parent company, Carlisle Construction Materials, had fabricated documents that supposedly supported Robertson’s termination, after she had been fired.

The jury found both defendants liable for discrimination against Robertson based on gender, subjecting her to a hostile work environment, and retaliating against her by terminating her employment. The jury agreed that Robertson’s emotional pain and suffering, mental anguish, loss of enjoyment of life, inconvenience, and other losses entitled her to damages, and awarded her $92,000. For the physical and psychological symptoms requiring medical care, she was awarded $400,000 in personal injury damages.

The jury also concluded that the employer and its parent company had acted with malice, and with reckless indifference to Robertson’s rights, which are protected by both federal and state laws. For this, they awarded Robertson an additional $12.5 million in punitive damages. In total, Robertson was awarded just under $13 million in her workplace harassment and discrimination lawsuit.

Related Legal Terms and Issues

  • Damages – A monetary award in compensation for a financial loss, loss of or damage to personal or real property, or an injury.
  • DefendantA party against whom a lawsuit has been filed in civil court, or who has been accused of, or charged with, a crime or offense.
  • Discrimination – The practice of unfairly treating different categories of people, especially on the grounds of ethnicity, national origin, gender, race, religion, and sexual orientation.
  • Liable – Responsible by law; to be held legally answerable for an act or omission.
  • Trial – A formal presentation of evidence before a judge and jury for the purpose of determining guilt or innocence in a criminal case, or to make a determination in a civil matter.
  • Victim – A person who is injured, killed, or otherwise harmed as a result of a criminal act, accident, or other event.