Workplace Harassment: What’s Comfortable for You May be Uncomfortable for Someone Else

Harassment in the workplace is becoming one of the most challenging things for business owners to deal with. One of the reasons for this is the highly subjective nature of it. What may not appear to be harassment to a casual observer, may feel like harassment to the person who is targeted by the actions or comments.

Three Types of Harassment in the Workplace

You may have heard of one or more types of harassment in the workplace. You may, however, be surprised to learn that there are three types of harassment commonly experienced and/or complained of in the workplace:

1) Verbal or written harassment

2) Visual harassment

3) Physical harassment

They matter to you, as an employer, because allowing harassing behavior to occur in the workplace, according to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), can contribute to what some employees believe is a hostile work environment.

It’s nearly impossible for one person to judge what different people may view as crossing a line into the realm of harassment. You must figure out a way to keep your workplace harassment-free to ensure that every employee feels that they are welcome and much-needed part of your team.

To aid you in your efforts to create policies expressly identifying behaviors many reasonable employees may view as harassment, we’ve created this helpful guide.

Verbal and Written Harassment

This type of harassment is typically the most obvious and most widespread in today’s workplaces. Some examples of this type of harassment include:

  • Asking employees about family histories concerning certain illnesses or genetic disorders.
  • Imitating someone’s foreign accent when they aren’t around.
  • Making negative comments about the age or disability of others.
  • Requesting dates or sexual favors via email, text, or face-to-face encounters.
  • Sending emails containing offensive jokes or images concerning religion or race.

Technology, while making many things in the workplace easier, often proves problematic when it comes to harassment in the workplace. It is far too often for things intended only by one set of eyes to make their rounds and be viewed by all. Even by people, the original message wasn’t intended.

Physical Harassment

Despite its physical nature, this type of harassment may be more difficult to identify because it is often done very subtly. These are some of the forms physical harassment in the workplace may take:

  • Intentionally following or standing too close to a person.
  • Lewd hand gestures.
  • Making sexually suggestive hand and/or facial gestures.
  • Playing music with offensive or degrading language.
  • Unwanted touching of a person and his or her clothing.

It doesn’t even have to be directed at one specific person to constitute harassment. Sometimes, joking around where the hand or facial gestures can be viewed by others is sufficient to constitute harassment as well as playing music that contains offensive language or degrades others.

Visual Harassment

One of the most difficult forms of harassment for many employers to identify is visual harassment. The reason is simple. It is so widely subjective. What one person may see in an image may be entirely different from what you see in it. For this reason, it is essential to listen to complaints by your employees and try to see things from that employee’s point of view.  These are some visual forms of harassment you might seek to avoid and/or eliminate in your workplace:

  • Clothing that contains offensive or vulgar language.
  • Drawing images that are derogatory or violent.
  • Hanging or displaying pictures that are sexual in nature.
  • Showing coworkers emails or text messages that are sexually suggestive.
  • Watching videos containing pornography or violence.

Be careful to avoid dismissing or diminishing the validity of the person’s feelings as that may further their feelings of harassment or hostility in the workplace.

The bottom line is that your employees should feel safe and not feel threatened in the workplace. It is the difficult task of employers to create a work environment that not only feels safe but also discourages conversations, actions, and images that may cause one or more of the people who work for you feel unwelcome, unwanted, or threatened.

What Can You do to Avoid Workplace Harassment in Your Office Space?

The most important thing you can do is create policies related to harassment and educate your employees about what constitutes as harassment and the steps they can take to avoid being accused of harassing others.

Help employees recognize harassment and make sure they know the appropriate actions to take when they see it in action or when it happens to them. Having a plan in place lets them know they have a voice that will be heard.

The next thing you need to do is set an example of exemplary behavior from the top down. Demand that leaders in your organization lead by example when it comes to avoiding harassing behaviors in the workplace.

Prevention is the best cure for harassment in the workplace. Sometimes, claims will be made despite your best efforts. When this occurs, make sure you take those claims seriously (even if you don’t always understand them) and follow your own policies for handling them.

Employment Practices Liability Insurance is Needed Now More than Ever

It is more critical now than ever before to invest in employment practices liability insurance (EPLI) coverage. Many factors are creating a significant upswing in the frequency of these types of lawsuits. With the nature of the workplace and the uptick in the use of social media, employees are more likely to seek legal action today for workplace harassment issues.

At Insurance Center of North Jersey, you can be confident of our long history of serving both business and individuals with their insurance needs.

Call us at 201-525-1100 for a confidential discussion about your employment practices liability insurance needs.