Preventing Harassment at Work

Most people who feel harassed at work never file a complaint. How are you preventing harassment at your workplace?



Year after year, claims of sexual harassment (typically accompanied by claims of retaliation) account for more than 30% of all claims filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). While this may sound underwhelming, one study found that 90% of people who experience harassment never take formal action with a charge or complaint. 

What can you do to protect your employees? 

First, you must understand what harassment is so you can recognize it when it is happening. Next, you need tools and training to prevent harassment in your workplace, as well as knowledge of how to respond to claims of harassment.

What is Harassment? 

According to the EEOC, harassment is defined 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). Harassment becomes unlawful where 1) enduring the offensive conduct becomes a condition of continued employment, or 2) the conduct is severe or pervasive enough to create a work environment that a reasonable person would consider intimidating, hostile, or abusive. 

While harassment often takes place in person, you do not have to be in the same physical location as another person to experience harassment. Any method of communication can facilitate harassment, such as phone, email, text, team chats, social media, or any other messaging system. 

A person can experience harassment directly or indirectly from a coworker, supervisor, customer, vendor, or anyone encountered through work. If you are unsure whether something is harassment, ask these two questions: 

  1. "Is it unwelcome?" 
  2. "Would a reasonable person have found this conduct so severe that it created a hostile environment?" 

Types of Harassment

There are two types of harassment in the legal world: quid pro quo and hostile work environment. 

Quid Pro Quo 

“Quid Pro Quo” is a Latin phrase that means “this for that.” It implies doing a favor for a favor, or "I will do this, if you do that." This type of harassment comes from a supervisor or other person with authority, as the favor is returned by some type of job benefit. 

Examples of quid pro quo include: 

  • "I will promote you if you go to dinner with me." 
  • "If you don't do this favor for me, I'll schedule you with your least favorite co-worker." 
  • "You'll get more job flexibility if you give me your social media username." 

Hostile Work Environment 

A “Hostile Work Environment” is a workplace in which the offensive conduct is so severe or pervasive that it impacts your ability to work.  

Examples of situations that could lead to a hostile work environment include: 

  • "I found a funny meme that is an everyday object, but from another perspective, it could look like something inappropriate. Let me share it to my team chat!" 
    Tip: If this could be taken offensively by anyone, do not share it.  
  • "My female employee can’t possibly finish this job faster than me. I am going to take it from her and make sure she knows I am faster." 
    Tip: Avoid making any sexist comment or treating others differently based on gender, as this creates a hostile work environment. 
  • "I am sitting in the break room discussing details of our romantic night with my girlfriend. It is a private conversation." 
    Tip: Save the private conversations for later. If someone at work overhears what you are saying, even if it does not affect them directly, it can contribute to a hostile work environment.  
  • "I know my coworker and I would hit it off if she would just give me a chance. Let me ask her out again." 
    Tip: Do not repeatedly ask someone out for a date who has already said no, as this can create a hostile work environment.  

As a Manager, What Should I Do About Harassment? 

Most importantly, do not be the harasser! Regularly review the above scenarios and keep your own conduct in check.  

Many states require anti-harassment training (some on a biannual basis), typically within a short introductory period of first being hired. Talk with your Stratus HR rep about your state’s requirements and/or setting this up for your team. Training should include the definition of sexual harassment, how to recognize and react to harassment, your company’s complaint procedure, and legal recourse. 

If you witness harassment, someone tells you they are being harassed, or you hear about harassment from another employee, you are obligated to report it to human resources (HR) immediately. Complaints should be investigated promptly, followed by effective action to correct the problem. Inform the complainant that only those on a need-to-know basis will know. Keep them updated on status and ensure them they are protected from retaliation. 

If you experience harassment firsthand, report it to HR. In the event the perpetrator is HR, report it to another manager. You do not have to be afraid or alone. 

To learn more about what your company can do to prevent harassment, see Stopping Harassment in the Workplace. 

As an Employee, What Should I Do About Harassment? 

Never downplay a coworker’s perceived harassment. Encourage them to inform the harasser directly that their behavior is unwelcome and must stop. If they are uncomfortable addressing the harasser directly, have them ask their supervisor and/or HR to address it with them. 

In the event the unwelcome behavior does not stop, they should submit a complaint to HR. Your company should investigate and provide prompt, effective action to correct the problem. Remember, they are protected from being retaliated against for reporting harassment.  

For more information, please contact your certified HR expert. Not a current Stratus HR client? Book a free consultation and our team will contact you shortly. 

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