Defining Workplace Harassment

DEFINING Workplace Harassment

If your experience was unwelcome, unwanted, and based in bias — then it was harassment. That said, the government has specific ways that they define harassment. This guide focuses on the US laws. If you are a US citizen living abroad, contact your local embassy. If you’re not a US citizen, see local laws for more context.

The US federal, state, and city governments don’t always align in how they define harassment.  At a minimum, these are the federally approved protected classes:

  • Race
  • Color
  • Sex (including pregnancy, sexual orientation, and gender identity)
  • National origin
  • Age (40+) 
  • Disability
  • Genetic Information

However, some states and cities cover additional forms of bias, including immigration status. To see what classes are considered “protected” in your state, check out local laws or speak with a lawyer.

For each protected class, the US government has different standards for how it defines harassment. For example, when it comes to sexual harassment there are two types:

  • Quid Pro Quo – A form of sexual harassment where a manager or someone else with authority, promises a work related benefit in exchange for a romantic or sexual favor. An example of Quid Pro Quo is a manager offering a pay raise or more favorable schedule in exchange for date.
  • Hostile Work Environment – A work environment is considered “hostile” when the harassment is ongoing.

Even if it doesn’t rise to a level of what the government may define as harassment, your employer may want to put a stop to these behaviors.

The Spectrum of Disrespect

 Things like eye-rolling, taking credit for other people’s work, or failing to support a co-worker — are all examples of behaviors on what we call “the spectrum of disrespect.”

The idea behind the spectrum of disrespect is that when you have a workplace culture where speaking over people is acceptable, it creates a workplace culture where shaming/humiliation, often in the form of jokes becomes a little more acceptable. And when you have a workplace culture where shaming/humiliation, often in the form of jokes is acceptable, it creates a workplace culture where items that we might traditionally refer to as harassment — such inappropriate comments or sexual innuendos — more acceptable.  

To be clear, not all forms of disrespect are based in bias. Things like stress, communication style, and competition can all create disrespectful workplace dynamics as well. But bias can be one of many drivers of disrespect, and even more tricky, it can be a driver of disrespect in ways that we may not be able to see. 

We often think of harassment as a result of explicit bias, i.e. “women aren’t as smart as men.” But it’s rarely this clear cut.  Implicit bias shows up as unconscious, making it tricky to diagnose and event trickier to uproot inside of workplaces. Things like — a white person at a conference lunch being more likely to sit at a table of white people rather than people of color, or a man being more likely to interrupt his female co-workers than his male co-workers — are all examples of implicit bias. It’s something that almost all of us have an exhibit to some degree; not because we are bad people, but because we are part of a culture that despite great advancement is still racist, sexist, homophobic, and the list goes on.

The role of implicit bias means that while everyone can (and likely has) experienced disrespect in the workplace at some time or another — women, people of color, LGBTQ+ individuals, and other marginalized groups tend to experience it more. As a result, the impacts are often more severe and can include things like anxiety, inability to focus, absenteeism, drop in productivity and creativity — and of course, retention.