Combating Workplace Harassment

Workplace harassment: How companies can prevent it and what employees can do if it happens

workplace harassment

Awareness against harassment

awareness against workplace HarassmentAre you a victim or harassment or have you observed it happening in your workplace? Let’s explore some facts that you should know in order to handle it. 

Our mission at Project WHEN (Workplace Harassment Ends Now) is to elevate awareness to eliminate harassment and create more respectful workplaces. This post on workplace harassment is part of our series of pages educating the public about various types of workplace harassment, how employers can prevent it, and employees’ rights under the law.

What is harassment?

Definition of workplace harassmentHarassment refers to unwanted conduct made against an individual on the basis of age, color, race, sex, national origin, disability or genetic information. It is a form of discrimination that can occur in the workplace and can manifest as offensive remarks, insults, slurs, mockery, jokes, objects, drawings, and pictures. Threats, intimidation, and unwelcome physical conduct are also harassment acts.

In this post, we’ll touch on real examples of workplace harassment, the laws offering protection from it, and the recourse victims have under the law. Importantly, we’ll also cover what employers can do to prevent it from occurring in the workplace, along with delving into what companies should do to address harassment claims. You’ll also find a number of resources we believe are helpful for those dealing with this problem.

Examples of workplace harassment

Workplace harassment takes many forms. One example is harassment based on an individual’s race. In a lawsuit brought about by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), a manager in a hamburger restaurant racially harassed an African American employee, frequently referring to him and his fiancée by racial slurs which resulted in a hostile work environment.

In addition to this, the district manager to which the employee submitted a complaint downplayed the conduct. Instead of a proper corrective action, the victim was involuntarily transferred to a farther location. This pervasive behavior violated Title VII of the Civil Rights Act and the company was ordered to pay $70,000 to the victim, among other penalties.

Harassment can also occur on the basis of sexual orientation and disability. As an example, a Manhattan-based retail store violated Title VII and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) when it failed to take prompt and corrective steps in relation to a harassment complaint made by a sales consultant at the store. For almost three years, the sales consultant was subjected to constant verbal harassment by two colleagues. The employee’s supervisor did not take the complaints seriously and the employee was forced to quit to get away from the persistent harassment.

These are just some of the cases that illustrate how harassment occurs in the workplace and how it goes against the law. More scenarios and conditions that make harassment unlawful will be covered in the next sections.

Statistics on workplace harassment

According to the EEOC, harassment filings (including sexual harassment) in fiscal year 2019 reached 26,221. In the same year, victims were paid out $139.6 million in total for settlements, damages, fringe benefits, and other types of cash relief. This is the highest recorded figure in terms of monetary benefits received by victims within the last ten years.

Race-based harassment charges filed and resolved with the federal agency also rose slightly in FY 2019, increasing by 1.75% from 2018.

Harassment destroys work culture and creates a toxic workplace environment. Dealing with it can become stressful and costly. This is why awareness is important. Being educated about workplace issues like this goes a long way. Read on to explore which laws protect you from it, as well as key actions to take by both companies and victims in dealing with this type of discrimination.

Workplace harassment laws

Federal law

Workplace harassment federal lawsTitle VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 (ADEA), and the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA) are some of the fundamental federal laws that make workplace harassment illegal.

According to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), a federal agency who enforces these laws, there are generally two situations where harassment becomes unlawful. First, when the victim is forced to endure an offensive conduct as a condition of continued employment. Second, when the behavior is severe enough to cause a reasonable person to feel threatened, intimidated, and unsafe in a hostile or abusive work environment.

It is important to note that one-off teasing or isolated incidents are not considered illegal. However, a single incident can be unlawful if it is proven to be extremely serious. The EEOC evaluates harassment claims on a case-by-case basis and looks into the nature of the behavior and the context surrounding the alleged conduct.

Harassment can occur between a victim and his/her supervisor, a supervisor in another department or another business area, an employer’s agent, a co-worker, or a non-employee. Additionally, a victim does not necessarily have to be the one who is directly experiencing harassment. Any person who is affected by the conduct is a victim under the law.

Furthermore, employers are automatically made accountable for harassment occurring in the workplace, especially if it results in adverse employment action and a hostile work environment, or if a preventive or corrective action was not in place.

Below is an excerpt from Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 pertaining to harassment as a form of employment discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964


SEC. 703.

(a) It shall be an unlawful employment practice for an employer–

(1) to fail or refuse to hire or to discharge any individual, or otherwise to discriminate against any individual with respect to his compensation, terms, conditions, or privileges of employment, because of such individual’s race, color, religion, sex, or national origin; or

(2) to limit, segregate, or classify his employees in any way which would deprive or tend to deprive any individual of employment opportunities or otherwise adversely affect his status as an employee, because of such individual’s race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.

(b) It shall be an unlawful employment practice for an employment agency to fail or refuse to refer for employment, or otherwise to discriminate against, any individual because of his race, color, religion, sex, or national origin, or to classify or refer for employment any individual on the basis of his race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.

(c) It shall be an unlawful employment practice for a labor organization–

(1) to exclude or to expel from its membership, or otherwise to discriminate against, any individual because of his race, color, religion, sex, or national origin;

(2) to limit, segregate, or classify its membership, or to classify or fail or refuse to refer for employment any individual, in any way which would deprive or tend to deprive any individual of employment opportunities, or would limit such employment opportunities or otherwise adversely affect his status as an employee or as an applicant for employment, because of such individual’s race, color, religion, sex, or national origin; or

(3) to cause or attempt to cause an employer to discriminate against an individual in violation of this section.

(d) It shall be an unlawful employment practice for any employer, labor organization, or joint labor-management committee controlling apprenticeship or other training or retraining, including on-the-job training programs to discriminate against any individual because of his race, color, religion, sex, or national origin in admission to, or employment in, any program established to provide apprenticeship or other training.

State Law

Some states have laws that protect individuals from workplace harassment. The best way to learn more about additional protections you can receive locally is to refer to your state’s department of labor website. Our guide on reporting incidents of workplace harassment links to each state’s DOL website, as well as some of the regional and city organizations, for those in more populous areas.

Recourse for victims of workplace harassment

reporting workplace harassment incidentsIf you have experienced workplace harassment, it is encouraged for you to tell the harasser (whether verbally or in written form) that the conduct is unwelcome, offensive, and should stop. You are also encouraged to take advantage of any harassment complaint system or policies in the workplace. 

But if you are not seeing any signs of moving forward and you feel that your complaint has fallen on deaf ears, or you have received worse treatment from a supervisor/manager after raising the concern, you have the right to seek legal recourse. One of your options is to consult legal counsel or a lawyer who can help you evaluate the case and provide valuable advice regarding your claims.

A best next step could also be filing a charge either through your state administrative agency or the EEOC, a federal agency that enforces federal laws related to harassment and discrimination in the workplace. You are not required to speak with an attorney before approaching a government agency to discuss your situation; these entities are in place to protect your rights as an employee and are typically willing to give guidance on suggested next steps for you as a victim.

When you believe that harassment has occurred, acting promptly is essential. Victims have 180 days to file a charge with the EEOC while federal employees have 45 days to contact  an EEO counselor.

For more information about reporting harassment cases, refer to our full guide on How to Report Workplace Harassment Incidents. This article provides a comprehensive list of state resources and local EEOC offices. You can also head directly to the EEOC’s page on How to File a Charge of Employment Discrimination.

What can companies do to prevent workplace harassment?

Employers are legally responsible for ensuring the safety of every member of their workforce. To prevent sexual harassment and other discriminatory practices from happening, employers must articulate to all employees that these conducts are prohibited in the workplace. Establishing harassment policies or complaint systems is a great way to protect individuals and inform them that your company does not tolerate workplace harassment.

Furthermore, companies must exhibit willingness to address concerns and execute necessary actions to stop discriminatory practices. Preventing harassment is most effective when the initiative starts with senior leadership, but sometimes change takes one individual who has the courage to speak up. 

If you are passionate about ensuring the safety of employees from the different manifestations of discrimination, consider getting your company involved with Project WHEN (Workplace Harassment Ends Now). As a first step, we’d ask you to sign our Pledge of Commitment to demonstrate your commitment to creating a respectful, harassment-free workplace for your employees.

For a holistic and structured approach to living out your commitment, we encourage employers to enroll in the WHEN™ Organizational Certification program. In this program, we will guide you through a step-by-step process of preventing all types of workplace harassment. This certification will also serve as a powerful statement to both internal and external audiences about your commitment to making your workplace a safe space for everyone.

What should companies do when workplace harassment happens?

Harassment and discrimination happen when companies lack understanding of requirements set forth by the law and implementation of preventive measures. When tell-tale signs of hostility are observed within the organization, it is time to start dismantling it by engaging in meaningful conversations and breaking the status quo. 

how to address workplace discrimination and harassmentIf you are ready to begin discussions on creating a more respectful work environment, we can facilitate a Project WHEN Roundtable. This event can help attendees identify challenges present in their current working conditions and gain insight on the best action steps to eliminate traces of discrimination in the workplace.

If you are an individual who thinks that it is time to see change happening in your company, let your employer know about this and ask for a facilitated discussion to take place.

Remember, the problem of workplace harassment will not solve itself. It is important for everyone to develop heightened awareness of what they can do to make a difference. Change will only take place if people within the workplace take the initiative to address issues, no matter how uncomfortable it may be.

Additional resources and recommended readings

For more information about workplace harassment, we’ve rounded up some resources that you can consult and find below. 

End workplace harassment now

Nobody should have to face workplace harassment. Project WHEN is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization working hard to make workplaces more respectful for everyone. Elevating awareness to prevent workplace harassment from taking place is what runs at the core of our organization.

Whether you’d like to make a financial contribution to support our work, sign the Project WHEN Pledge of Commitment, have your employer host a Project WHEN event, or just join our mailing list to learn of volunteer opportunities, everyone can get involved with Project WHEN!