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What Is Considered Harassment at Work?


“Political correctness” has become a catch phrase and almost a cliché. Unfortunately, it isn’t always remembered in the workplace where harassment can run rampant. Knowing what constitutes harassment and what doesn’t is the fulcrum point between an emotionally healthy work environment and a hostile one.

Existence or Not

There are three pivotal points in determining whether harassment exists or not, regardless of the type of harassment that might be involved.

Cessation request: It is imperative for someone to request discontinuation of the harassing behavior. Following the legal precept, “Silence is implied consent,” if no one declares the behavior is unwelcome, that person or group gives stated or implied permission for it to continue, and no harassment situation exists.

Immediacy: The declaration must come early in the exposed behavior pattern to avoid any semblance of retribution, i.e., a male employee filing sexual harassment charges against a female supervisor with whom he’d had an affair but was passed over for promotion.

Exposure: The requesting or reporting party does not have to be the target of the harassment. If someone not directly involved overhears or sees a violation and requests cessation which is ignored or discounted, harassment still exists and can be actionable. Exposure is the pivot point-not inclusion.


Harassment can take many forms, and legislation changes often. Under no circumstances or at no time is harassment healthy or productive. The cost of harassment extends from reduction in productivity, lost man-hours from investigation and counseling, and absenteeism, to huge monetary awards from civil suits against businesses and employees.

In 2007, the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission resolved:

  • 11,592 sexual harassment charges involving $49.9 million in monetary awards;
  • 25,882M race discrimination charges involving $67.7 million in awards;
  • 7,773 national origin charges involving $22.8 million in awards;
  • 2,387 religious harassment or discrimination charges involving $5.7 million in monetary awards.

Later figures may exist, but these, alone, tell quite a story. But monetary awards from settlements or civil judgments don’t tell all of it. Monetary penalties can arise from intangible effects, as well. Reduction or loss of company prestige, negative press, and souring of public opinion can all play a part in a business losing money from harassment.

Also included is potentially not finding good, highly qualified applicants to fill vacancies if a hostile work environment exists.


Expert Opinion

Quote: “Racial harassment, harassment based on age, national origin, or disability, and harassment associated with one’s religious beliefs were not only illegal but very significant workplace challenges.”

Source:   Gavin S. Appleby Harassment and Discrimination: And Other Workplace Landmines

Entrepreneur Press Legal Guide Services

Quote:   “The court ruled that sexual harassment could occur when the behaviors had the effect of unreasonably interfering with work or creating a hostile environment. These acts do not have to be sexual in nature but can be considered harassment if the behaviors would not have occurred except for the fact that the victims were women.”

Source:   Student-generated sexual harassment in secondary schools Roberta Wetzel, Nina W. Brown




“Understanding Workplace Harassment.” Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Home Page. N.p., n.d. Web. 28 June 2010.

“Harassment.” US EEOC Home Page. N.p., n.d. Web. 28 June 2010.

“Harassment Charges.” US EEOC Home Page. N.p., n.d. Web. 28 June 2010.

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