Organizational Wellness

Workplace Harassment: What it Is and How to Prevent It

Apr 10, 2023
Last Updated May 20, 2024

Have you ever headed into work with a knot in your stomach, dreading seeing a particular colleague? Or with a spring in your step because you knew they had a vacation day?

Workplace bullying and harassment have a huge impact on people’s daily experiences. While HR teams try and watch out for it, you can’t be everywhere at once. Unfortunately, it could be going on without you knowing, especially if you’re not super clear about what’s classed as harassment in the first place. 

Here’s what you need to know about identifying and preventing workplace harassment so you can foster a happy and healthy work environment. 

What Counts as Harassment in the Workplace?

TheU.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission defines harassment as “unwelcome conduct that is based on race, color, religion, sex (including sexual orientation, gender identity, or pregnancy), national origin, older age (beginning at age 40), disability, or genetic information (including family medical history).”

It can include “offensive jokes, slurs, epithets or name calling, physical assaults or threats, intimidation, ridicule or mockery, insults or put-downs, offensive objects or pictures, and interference with work performance.”

While annoyances will happen in any workplace, it’s important you can spot when they cross the line into harassment. To be considered unlawful, the behavior must create a workplace environment that would seem intimidating, hostile, or offensive to any reasonable person. It can either be a one-off incident or ongoing behavior.

Workplace harassment generally falls into three categories: physical, verbal, psychological, or emotional. Some examples of harassing behaviors include:

  • Sending offensive emails or online messages.
  • Making unwanted sexual advances or comments.
  • Intimidating or threatening behavior.
  • Undermining a colleague with constant, unreasonable criticism.
  • Using offensive slurs based on someone’s race, religion, gender, or age.

Examples of Workplace Harassment

It’s useful to know the legal definition of harassment, but that doesn’t always help you identify harassing behavior if it’s going on. Here are a few different types of workplace harassment you might need to know about.

“Quid Pro Quo” Harassment

Quid pro quo harassment is when an individual in a position of power attempts to exchange job benefits for sexual favors.

A manager could, for example, threaten an employee with a negative performance review if they refuse to go on a date with them. Alternatively, they could withhold promotion opportunities or pay raises unless the employee provides romantic or sexual services.

Online or Digital Harassment

Online harassment is when an individual uses digital or online media to send offensive messages or images that create an intimidating or hostile work environment. This type of harassment can range from sending inappropriate emails to posting offensive comments on social media.

For example, an employee could post derogatory comments about a co-worker on Facebook or send offensive Slack messages to other members of the team.

Psychological Harassment

Harassment doesn’t always look like physical threats or offensive words. Sometimes it can be more subtle. Psychological harassment can involve any behavior that creates an intimidating or hostile work environment. It could include making offensive comments, spreading rumors, or engaging in other behaviors designed to harm a person’s reputation, discredit their work, and isolate them in the workplace.

An employee, for example, could spread rumors about a colleague or make offensive comments about them in front of other team members. Alternatively, they could constantly dismiss their recommendations and oppose what they say, making it impossible for their colleague to effectively contribute to meetings and other discussions.

Sexual Harassment

Sexual harassment is any uninvited sexual conduct in the workplace. This can take many forms, including:

  • Verbal harassment such as making jokes or comments of a sexual nature.
  • Physical misconduct such as touching or even assault.
  • Visual harassment like displaying sexually suggestive images.

Perhaps an employee may make persistent, unwanted requests for dates or other suggestive comments to a colleague. Alternatively, they could make inappropriate physical contact, such as unwanted touching or groping.

The EEOC provides specific guidance and resources related to sexual harassment for employers.

Discriminatory Harassment

Discriminatory harassment is a form of harassment that involves discrimination against an individual or group based on their race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, age, or any other protected class.

For example, an employee may make inappropriate comments about a colleague’s ethnic background or religious beliefs. Alternatively, they could make offensive jokes or demeaning remarks about an individual’s age or gender.

How Employers Can Prevent Workplace Harassment

Harassment doesn’t just damage your work environment — it could be costly. Employers can be liable for harassment if they haven’t taken appropriate steps to address and prevent it. In March 2021, a McDonald’s franchisee had to pay $1.6 million in damages after it was found to have created a sexually hostile environment for employees.

Thankfully, there are plenty of steps you can take to protect your employees from harassment and your business from liability.

Develop and Enforce a Clear Anti-Harassment Policy

An anti-harassment policy is a set of rules and guidelines that an organization has in place to prevent, address and punish workplace harassment. This policy should:

  • Clearly define what counts as harassment
  • Outline the steps an employee should take if they feel that they have been harassed
  • Set out the disciplinary measures that will be taken if harassment is found to have occurred

Ensure all employees are aware of the policy and save it in a central location so they can refer to it at any time if needed. The Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) provides templates for many common HR policies, including a sample anti-harassment policy.

Provide Training on Recognizing Workplace Harassment

It’s important for employees to understand what harassing conduct looks like so they can identify it when it does occur. Providing regular training on identifying and responding to harassment can be an effective way to ensure that employees are aware of the issue and know how to respond if they witness or experience it.

Investigate Reports of Harassment Promptly

When an employee brings a complaint of harassment to your attention, it’s important to take it seriously. If you only do a cursory investigation or you don’t look into these reports at all, your business could be liable if any employee decides to sue.

Not only that — if you ignore reports of harassment, it sends a message that type of behavior is permitted in your workplace. This can allow harassment to spread and turn your workplace into a toxic environment for many employees. Make sure you investigate the complaint promptly and thoroughly and take appropriate action to prevent further incidents.

Take Disciplinary Action as Needed

If you find an employee has engaged in harassing behavior, it’s important to take disciplinary measures. Depending on the severity of the offense, you could provide counseling and training on appropriate workplace behavior, or consider issuing a formal warning.

For more serious incidents, you may need to take stronger corrective action, such as suspension or dismissal. No matter what action you take, make sure it reinforces the message that harassment is not tolerated in your workplace.

Maintain a Healthy Work Environment

HR teams put a lot of work into helping employers build a healthy, positive work environment. Taking steps to prevent workplace harassment can help maintain that environment for your employees.

You can also take other steps to foster a healthy work culture, for example by putting together a comprehensive benefits package that supports people’s physical and mental health. A corporate wellness program can be a valuable addition to your benefits package as it shows employees you’re investing in their physical wellbeing.

If you want to learn more about developing a corporate wellness program for your company, contact a Wellbeing Specialist today!

Company healthcare costs drop by up to 35% with Wellhub! (* Based on proprietary research comparing healthcare costs of active Wellhub users to non-users.) Talk to a Wellbeing Specialist to see how we can help reduce your healthcare spending!



Wellhub Editorial Team

The Wellhub Editorial Team empowers HR leaders to support worker wellbeing. Our original research, trend analyses, and helpful how-tos provide the tools they need to improve workforce wellness in today's fast-shifting professional landscape.


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