Workplace Harassment: Who Is Affected?

Workplace Harassment: Who Is Affected?

Workplace harassment or discrimination is not limited to employees or direct victims of the act. Other people who can be affected by verbal, physical, or other harassment include anyone in the work environment who perceives the behavior as hostile. These may be co-workers who are sitting nearby and are bothered by it or a visitor to the office, such as a vendor or business partner, who is the object of or witness to an act of harassment.

Clearly denote harassing behaviors: what and where

Discriminatory harassment is covered under federal civil rights law. The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) defines harassment as a form of employment discrimination that violates Title 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).  According to the EEOC, examples of workplace harassment include offensive or derogatory jokes, racial or ethnic slurs, pressure for dates or sexual favors, unwelcome comments about a person’s religion or religious garments, or offensive graffiti, and cartoons or pictures.

In addition, instances of workplace harassment need not always occur on work premises. For example, being repeatedly pressured or bullied about any of the above-mentioned categories at an off-site work conference or on social media may constitute harassment that is reportable.

Make sure your employee handbook outlines all of this for everyone’s protection. 

Define who is a potential victim—and a bully

As we noted in a prior post, the section of your employee handbook that deals with workplace harassment should clearly define who is a potential victim (direct or indirect). The target may not even consider the behavior as harassment or bullying; however, others in the environment who do feel the behavior is hostile or feel they are being bullied have the right to complain to supervisors, human resources, or other contacts within the organization without fear of retaliation.

By the way, the harasser does not need to be an employee. The bully can be an outside salesperson, customer/client, or anyone with whom your company does business and has access to your team. That person’s behavior can also cause a hostile work environment and company leadership cannot allow that to continue once a complaint is made or the behavior is observed.

Know who is protected from discrimination

It is incumbent upon leadership to maintain an environment free of discrimination, especially when it comes to protected classes of individuals. Although sexual harassment is often the type of bullying that is top of mind in today’s #MeToo world, discrimination and bullying behavior can show up around a person’s gender identity or gender expression, sexual orientation, nationality or heritage, race, age, creed, religion, marital status, medical status, military service history, or disability. These protected classes are defined by state, federal, and local laws.

Examples of people affected by workplace harassment and discrimination

  1. Pregnancy/family status
    • Sarah is a great employee and is now five months pregnant. Despite positive performance reviews, her employer took adverse action against her because of her pregnancy. The actions are an unwanted work schedule reduction, denial of overtime, and penalizing Sarah for taking lawful sick leave due to a pregnancy-related condition.
  2. Religion
    • Kareem, who is Muslim, prays five times daily according to his religious observance; two of those prayer sessions are during regular work hours. He has requested that his break times coincide with his prayer times; his supervisor has repeatedly refused to consider the request, even though these would not interfere with Kareem’s work, cause harm or expense to the employer, or negatively impact his coworkers.
  3. Sexual harassment
    • Carrie is a hostess at a popular restaurant. The general manager has talked about her physique directly to her and around other staff members, touched her several times in inappropriate ways without her permission, and he talks openly about her in a racy context. Carrie isn’t bothered by this behavior but other female staff members are offended and report this to the restaurant owner.

Workplace harassment and discrimination show up in numerous ways and can affect anyone associated with your company, directly or indirectly. If it’s time to review your company policies and expand your employee handbook to make sure your organization is prepared to prevent a hostile work environment that may result in harassment complaints and liability, contact Karen Roche at for guidance.