What Constitutes Harassment At Work

Understanding what constitutes harassment at work is important in setting up and maintaining a work environment where all employees feel welcome, productive and protected. Determining the difference between inappropriate-but not illegal-behavior and illegal harassment is key for managers and employers in pursuing the consequences of the actions: Inappropriate behavior is against company policy, but harassment is unlawful.

What is the definition of harassment?
Work harassment can be defined as unwanted physical or verbal behavior that creates a hostile work environment. When the behavior targets a legally protected characteristic, such as gender, age, race, religion or sexual orientation, and interferes with the normal operations of an employee's work and workplace, harassment is taking place. Harassment can be anything from engaging in behavior designed to force someone to quit to actual physical threats.

Who is the victim?
Anyone at the workplace can become a victim of harassment, and such behavior can be perpetrated by a boss, supervisor, co-worker, vendor or guest. The stereotype of the harassment victim is usually a young woman facing sexual harassment from the boss, but any person of any age, position and gender can be a victim, as well as the instigator. Victims can also include those who are a witness to the behavior and not the subject. For example, if a co-worker is constantly making negative jokes and comments about another's faith, a third party, not just the recipient of the harassment, can also feel that the workplace has become hostile.

What isn't considered harassment?
To constitute work harassment, the behavior has to be unwelcome and focused on a protected characteristic or class (such as gender or national origin). The behavior must also interfere with normal work performance or create a hostile work environment. Limited teasing, single incidents or even prejudices that do not impact an employee's status are not considered job harassment as legally defined-those actions and behaviors are not proper and should be covered under inappropriate behavior policies set forth by the company. Issues can arise that make employees feel mad, sad or bothered, but those instances may not necessarily be illegal.

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