Workplace Harassment - How to Recognize It

Not as straightforward as many of us believe

"It's just a joke."

"It's just a thing we do."

"He knows what I mean."

"It's a thing between us. You wouldn't understand."

"I was just trying to help."

We've all heard these kinds of expressions at work, usually after someone has been called out for doing or saying something that could be considered harassment.

Harassment is still alive and well in the workplace. It not only is painful and at times devastating for the victim, but it also impacts co-workers, brings down moral, and productivity, and it can have negative financial implications.

Here is a short Harassment 101, to help you identify what harassment looks like and sounds like so it can be cut off at the root.

What Harassment Looks like

There's the obvious harassment where someone openly bullies, threatens or terrorizes someone. What's harder to identify is the more subtle harassment—the actions that aren't intentionally harassing. The person behind subtle harassment often believes their actions are harmless or even helpful. That's why it's important to have harassment radar.

For actions to be harassment they must create a hostile work environment. This comes from behavior that is offensive and ongoing. And although one inappropriate joke might just be bad taste, depending on that joke it could have severe repercussions.

Who Decides

Who decides if something is "offensive"? For harassment, the Reasonable Person Standard is used. In short, would a reasonable person find the comment or conduct unwelcome and out of bounds. Think back to something you thought might be harassing. Would a reasonable person feel uncomfortable, humiliated, embarrassed or unsafe? If the answer is "yes", then it's probably harassment.

Some other examples of subtle harassment may include:

  • Off color jokes
  • Gossip
  • Inappropriate pictures being passed around

Do Something

Every workplace should be a place where people feel safe and respected. And employees should understand that management can't do it all. Employees are responsible for helping create a safe workplace by treating each other with respect.

If it's not a great environment, don't just sit there. Do something. If you're the victim of harassment, speak up. Let that person know that comment was offensive and ask them to stop. If it goes on, talk to HR or follow the appropriate steps at your company. If you were the instigator, apologize.

For a better understanding of what harassment looks like, how to spot it, and how to deail with it, you may want to check out Programs such as How Was Your Day: Getting Real about Bias, Inclusion, Harassment and Bullying which offer comprehensive solutions in versatile formats to help organizations build inclusive and respectful cultures and the workplaces that reflect them. Employee and Manager versions are available.  

In the meantime, play your part. Keep your eyes and ears open. Don't let harassment get an ugly foothold at your workplace. Create an environment everyone enjoys working in. 

Diane Mettler has been a manager for nearly 20 years. She's also a freelance writer and editor—with hundreds of her articles published in a variety of magazines—and teaches writing at the University of Washington.