There are many types of harassment in the workplace. Harassment may consist of unwelcome or offensive behaviour that contributes to a hostile work environment. These can come from a co-worker, supervisor, boss, vendor or client that can cause an employee to feel uncomfortable or threatened.

There are so many types of workplace harassment and so many interpretations that even the most diligent HR professional could miss the signs. With a more thorough understanding of workplace harassment, you will be able to detect, prevent and protect against such threats.

This blog will help you identify 8 Types of Workplace Harassment and 6 Ways to Prevent Them.

The content of this blog will be structured in the following order:

  1. Defining Workplace Harassment
  2. 8 Types of Workplace Harassment
  3. 6 Ways to Workplaces can Prevent Harassment

Defining Workplace Harassment

United States

According to the U.S. Government, offensive conduct may include, but is not limited to, offensive jokes, slurs, epithets or name calling, physical assaults or threats, intimidation, ridicule or mockery, insults or put-downs, offensive objects or pictures, and interference with work performance. Harassment can occur in a variety of circumstances, including, but not limited to, the following:

  • The harasser can be the victim’s supervisor, a supervisor in another area, an agent of the employer, a co-worker, or a non-employee.
  • The victim does not have to be the person harassed, but can be anyone affected by the offensive conduct.
  • Unlawful harassment may occur without economic injury to, or discharge of, the victim.

In the United States, petty slights, annoyances, and isolated incidents (unless extremely serious) will not rise to the level of illegality. To be unlawful, the conduct must create a work environment that would be intimidating, hostile, or offensive to reasonable people.

United Kingdom

In the U.K., harassment is unlawful under the Equality Act 2010. According to the U.K. government, examples of bullying or harassing behaviour include:

  • spreading malicious rumours
  • unfair treatment
  • picking on or regularly undermining someone
  • denying someone’s training or promotion opportunities

Bullying and harassment can happen:

  • face-to-face
  • by letter
  • by email
  • by phone

Bullying itself is not against the law, but harassment is. This is when the unwanted behaviour is related to one of the following:

  • age
  • sex
  • disability
  • gender reassignment
  • marriage and civil partnership
  • pregnancy and maternity
  • race
  • religion or belief
  • sexual orientation


Similarly, in Australia, bullying, sexual harassment and discrimination in the workplace are not appropriate and can be unlawful. 

Bullying happens at work when:

  • a person or group of people repeatedly behave unreasonably towards another worker or group of workers
  • the behaviour creates a risk to health and safety.

Examples of bullying include:

  • behaving aggressively towards others
  • teasing or playing practical jokes
  • pressuring someone to behave inappropriately
  • excluding someone from work-related events
  • unreasonable work demands.

8 Types of Workplace Harassment

Discriminatory Harassment

According to the US Government, discriminatory harassment is verbal or physical conduct that demeans or shows hostility, or aversion, toward an individual because of his/her race, color, religion, gender, national origin, age, disability, or because of retaliation for engaging in protected activity and that:

  • Has the purpose or effect of creating an intimidating, hostile, or offensive working environment; or
  • Has the purpose or effect of unreasonably interfering with an individual’s work performance; or
  • Otherwise adversely affects an individual’s employment opportunities.

Harassing conduct includes, but is not limited to the following:

  • Epithets, slurs, jokes, negative stereotyping or threatening, intimidating or hostile acts that relate to a person’s race, color, religion, gender, national origin, age or disability.
  • Written or graphic material which demeans or shows hostility or aversion toward an individual or group because of race, color, religion, gender, national origin, age or disability and is posted on walls, bulletin boards, e-mail or elsewhere on the FLETC facility.
  • Submission to or rejection of such conduct by an individual is used as the basis for decisions affecting an individual’s employment.
8 Types of Workplace Harassment

Some examples of discriminatory harassment include:

Racial Harassment

In the United States, Discrimination based on race is prohibited by Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Racial discrimination occurs when persons are treated differently than others who are similarly situated because they are members of a specific race (e.g., White, Black, Asian, etc.).Examples of employees who are similarly situated may be those working in the same position and grade, the same component, or under the same line of supervision.

A victim may experience racial harassment because of their race, skin color, ancestry, origin country or citizenship.

Even perceived attributes of a certain ethnicity (curly hair, accents, customs, beliefs or clothing) may be the cause. Racial harassment often looks like:

  • Racial slurs
  • Racial insults
  • Racial jokes
  • Degrading comments
  • Disgust
  • Intolerance of differences

Gender Harassment

Workplace gender discrimination comes in many different forms, but generally it means that an employee or a job applicant is treated differently or less favorably because of their sex, gender identity, or sexual orientation. Even though the words “sex” and “gender” have different meanings, laws against discrimination at work often use them interchangeably.

Examples of treatment that could be gender discrimination include:

  • not being hired, or being given a lower-paying position because of your gender identity or sexual orientation (for example, when an employer refuses to hire women, or only hires women for certain jobs)
  • being held to different or higher standards, or being evaluated more harshly, because of your gender identity, or because you don’t act or present yourself in a way that conforms to traditional ideas of femininity or masculinity. For example, if a worker who identifies as a woman receives a negative performance evaluation that criticizes her for being too “aggressive” (while men who behave the same way are praised for showing “leadership”), or if she wears her hair short and is told she needs to be more “presentable,” she may be experiencing discrimination based on gender stereotypes, which is a form of gender discrimination.
  • being paid less than a person of a different gender or sexual orientation who is similarly or less qualified than you, or who has similar (or fewer) job duties than you
  • being denied a promotion, pay raise, or training opportunity that is given to people of another gender identity or sexual orientation who are equally or less qualified or eligible as you
  • being written up or disciplined for something that other employees of a different gender do all the time but never get punished for
  • being insulted, called derogatory names or slurs because of your gender identity, or hearing hostile remarks about people of a certain gender identity or sexual orientation.
  • being intentionally or repeatedly called by a name or referred to as a different gender that you don’t identify with – such as when a transgender man is called by his dead name, or referred to as “Miss”
  • being subject to unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, or other verbal or physical harassment of a sexual nature
  • being rejected for a job, forced out on leave, or given fewer assignments because you’re pregnant

Religious Harassment

Religious harassment is often interconnected with racial harassment but narrows in specifically on the victim’s religious beliefs.

An individual with a religion that differs from the “norm” of the company may face workplace harassment or intolerance in a variety of ways:

  • Intolerance toward religious holidays, traditions, and/or customs
  • Cruel religious jokes
  • Degrading stereotypical comments
  • Pressures to convert religions

Disability-Based Harassment

Disability-based harassment is a type of workplace harassment directed towards individuals who either:

  • Suffer from a disability themselves
  • Are acquainted with a disabled person or people
  • Use disability services (sick leave or workers’ comp)

A person with a disability may experience harassment in the form of:

  • Harmful teasing
  • Patronizing comments
  • Refusal to provide reasonable accommodations

Personal Harassment

Personal harassment is a form of workplace harassment that’s not based on one of the protected classes (such as race, gender or religion).

Personal harassment includes:

  • Inappropriate comments
  • Offensive jokes
  • Personal humiliation
  • Critical remarks
  • Ostracizing behaviors
  • Intimidation tactics
  • Or any other behavior that creates an intimidating and offensive work environment for the victim

Physical Harassment

Physical harassment, also often called workplace violence, refers to a type of workplace harassment that involves physical attacks or threats. In extreme cases, physical harassment may be classified as assault.

Physical gestures such as playful shoving can blur the line between appropriate or not since it’s the person on the receiving end who decides whether the behavior makes them uncomfortable.

Common examples of physical harassment include:

  • Direct threats of intent to inflict harm
  • Physical attacks (hitting, shoving, kicking)
  • Threatening behavior (shaking fists angrily)
  • Destroying property to intimidate

Sexual Harassment

Sexual harassment is when the perpetrator behaves in a romantic or sexual way towards the victim who is clearly uncomfortable and does not want attention of this nature. There is also something known as Quid Pro Quo sexual harassment where the superior makes a sexual request to the victim and if not taken up, a threat of something negative happening is made, such as losing their job or not getting a promotion.

Under the Fair Work Act, sexual harassment at work happens when a worker or group of workers:

  • makes an unwelcome sexual advance
  • makes an unwelcome request for sexual favours
  • engages in other unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature in relation to another worker

To be sexual harassment, it has to be reasonable to expect that there is a possibility that the worker being sexually harassed would be offended, humiliated or intimidated.

Some forms of sexual harassment can also be considered bullying if the behaviour is repeated or continuous. But unlike bullying, sexual harassment does not need to be continuous or repeated behaviour, it can be a one-off event. There is also no need to establish a risk to health and safety.

Psychological Harassment

Psychological harassment has a negative impact on a person’s psychological well-being. Victims of psychological harassment often feel put down and belittled on a personal level, a professional level or both. The damage to a victim’s psychological well-being often creates a domino effect, impacting their physical health, social life and work life.

Psychological harassment in the workplace might look like:

  • Isolating or denying the victim’s presence
  • Belittling or trivializing the victim’s thoughts
  • Discrediting or spreading rumors about the victim
  • Opposing or challenging everything the victim says

Power Harassment

Power harassment involves any kind of behavior in which a superior takes advantage of his or her position in the workplace to cause co-workers physical pain or emotional distress. This can be due to superiority by means of relative work position, physical size, or otherwise.

The most common example is a boss mistreating an employee when he/she is in a bad mood. This can manifest as condescending reactions to employee questions, shifting the blame on employees for their own incompetency, and withholding critical information from an employee that he/she needs to know.

Other types of power harassment include:

  • Physical attacks including acts of force or violence
  • Psychological attacks including intimidation or verbal abuse
  • Segregation or any kind of ostracism
  • Excessive demands (e.g. assigning work that is impossible to perform or obviously unnecessary)
  • Demeaning demands (e.g. assigning work clearly below the employee’s capability or not assigning work at all)
  • Intrusion upon the individual, including the employee’s personal life


Cyber bullying is often defined as a form of covert bullying and is carried out through the use of technology; for example, on the internet through emails, blogs and social networking sites, as well as via mobile phones. Some of the physical forms of bullying, such as transmission of rumours or gossip, crossover well into the Cyber-bullying category.

The problem with the use of online technologies is they are perfect camouflage for employing the hidden nature of covert and cyber bullying practices. This makes them difficult for the organisation to prevent or stop and perhaps, as a consequence, employees are not informed that they have rights to prevent such online bullying incidents.

This is particularly concerning, given the potential legal consequences as well as the ongoing social and psychological issues that can result for both employees who have been bullied and those who engage in bullying behaviour. Many employees are unaware as to what constitutes Cyber-bullying. Examples of Cyber-bullying include:

  • Malicious or threatening emails or SMS communications to an individual’s phone or email address;
  • Electronic communications that feature offensive content such as explicit images or jokes/comments about ethnicity, religion or sexual preference;
  • Electronic communications aimed at correcting or providing feedback to an individual that are copied to a group with the effect of publicly shaming or demeaning the individual;
  • Malicious or threatening comments about an individual posted on blogs or social networking sites;
  • Sharing embarrassing, offensive or manipulated images or videos of an individual; and
  • Screensavers for desktop backgrounds featuring offensive content.


Retaliation occurs when an employer punishes an employee for engaging in legally protected activity. Retaliation can include any negative job action, such as demotion, discipline, firing, salary reduction, or job or shift reassignment. But retaliation can also be more subtle.

6 Ways Workplaces can Prevent Harassment

Set the Standard of Workplace Behavior

A workplace can set and enforce clear standards of behaviour through a code of conduct or a workplace policy that outlines what is and is not appropriate behaviour and what action will be taken to deal with unacceptable behaviour. It can apply to all behaviours that occur in connection with work, even if they occur outside normal working hours. The standards of behaviour should also include a reference to reasonable management action.

The advantage of this approach is that unreasonable behaviours can be addressed before they escalate into workplace bullying. Implement a workplace bullying policy A policy designed to prevent workplace bullying may be a stand-alone policy or incorporated into a broader code of conduct or work health and safety policy. The policy should be set out in writing, be developed in consultation with workers and should include:

  • a statement that the organisation is committed to preventing workplace bullying as part of providing a safe and healthy work environment
  • the definition of workplace bullying (as described in this guide)
  • the standard of behaviour expected from workers and others in the workplace
  • a statement, where relevant, that the policy extends to communication through email, text messaging and social media • the process for reporting and responding to incidents of unreasonable behaviour
  • the process for managing reports of workplace bullying, including vexatious reports, and • the consequences of not complying with the policy. An example of a workplace bullying policy is at Appendix A. Implementing a policy in a small business may simply involve the business owner advising workers and reminding them when necessary that bullying behaviour is not tolerated in the workplace, what to do if it does occur and what action will be taken. To be effective, the policy should be easily accessible and consistently applied. It should be communicated and promoted through notice boards, the intranet, team meetings and by managers discussing the policy with their staff.

Develop productive and respectful workplace relationships

Good management practices and effective communication are important in creating a workplace environment that discourages workplace bullying. Examples include:

  • promote positive leadership styles by providing training for managers and supervisors
  • mentor and support new and poor performing managers and workers
  • facilitate teamwork, consultation and cooperation
  • ensure that reasonable management actions are clearly defined, articulated and understood by workers and supervisors
  • ensure supervisors act in a timely manner on unreasonable behaviour they see or become aware of

Where there is a risk of workplace bullying by other people, for example clients, the following control measures may be considered:

  • communicate the expected standard of behaviour through a code of conduct or in contracts and agreements
  • empower workers to refuse or suspend service if other people fail to comply with the expected standard of behaviour
  • provide support to workers who are exposed to unreasonable behaviour
  • implement control measures to eliminate or minimise the risk of workplace violence

Design safe systems of work

The following work design control measures may reduce the risk of workplace bullying:

  • clearly define jobs and seek regular feedback from workers about their role and responsibilities
  • provide workers with the resources, information and training they need to carry out their tasks safely and effectively
  • review and monitor workloads and staffing levels to reduce excessive working hours
  • provide access to support mechanisms, such as employee assistance programs, particularly during busy and stressful work periods
  • provide effective communication throughout workplace change, including restructuring or downsizing

Implement reporting and response procedures

Workplace bullying behaviours should not be tolerated and early reporting of these behaviours should be encouraged. If a worker considers they are being bullied they will be more likely to report it if they know there is a transparent reporting process in place and that it will be followed as soon as a report is received. Reporting can be encouraged by:

  • making it clear that victimisation of those who make reports will not be tolerated
  • ensuring consistent, effective and timely responses to reports
  • being transparent about dealing with workplace bullying by regularly providing information on the number of reports made, how they were resolved and what actions were taken. It is important for those who experience or witness workplace bullying to know who they can talk to in the business, that a report will be taken seriously, and that confidentiality will be maintained. Implementing effective response procedures should ensure that reports of workplace bullying are dealt with in a consistent and reasonable way.

These procedures should be used each time a report of bullying is made. They should also provide flexibility to fit the different circumstances of each report, and be designed to suit the size and structure of the organisation.

An effective procedure should:

  • be in plain English and if necessary available in other languages
  • outline how issues will be dealt with when a report of workplace bullying is made or received including broad principles to ensure the process is objective, fair and transparent.
  • clearly state the roles of individuals such as managers and supervisors, and • identify external avenues available to workers where reports of workplace bullying have been unable to be resolved internally. A procedure must be developed in consultation with workers and health and safety representatives (if any).

Provide training and information

Training is a significant factor in preventing and managing workplace bullying, particularly to enable early intervention in workplace conflict before it potentially escalates into bullying. Workers including managers and supervisors should be aware of their roles in relation to preventing and responding to workplace bullying and have the appropriate skills to take action where necessary. Training Induction training for workers should include information on:

  • the standards of behaviour expected in the workplace including the use of social media if relevant
  • how workplace bullying should be reported and how such reports are managed
  • where to go internally and externally for more information and assistance.

Training for workers can be provided in various ways including through online courses, podcasts and face-to-face training.

A training program should cover:

  • awareness of the impact certain behaviours can have on others
  • the work health and safety duties and responsibilities relating to workplace bullying
  • measures used to prevent workplace bullying from occurring
  • how individuals can respond to workplace bullying
  • how to report workplace bullying
  • how workplace bullying reports will be responded to including timeframes

Managers and supervisors need the skills to be able to identify psychological hazards and put the right control measures in place. They should be trained in how to prevent and respond to workplace bullying, and in skills that will help develop productive and respectful workplace relationships, for example training that covers:

  • communicating effectively and engaging workers in decision-making
  • managing difficult conversations and providing constructive feedback both formally and informally
  • conflict management
  • effectively managing workloads and performance
  • diversity and tolerance.

Training should be tailored to meet the needs of workers and suit the nature of the workplace and the workforce, for example levels of literacy. Providing workers with information Information about workplace bullying can be given to workers in a number of ways including:

  • talking directly with workers by holding team meetings, tool box talks or speaking one-on-one with them at the beginning of the work day
  • handing out company newsletters or pamphlets(including information sheets in payslips, displaying posters around the workplace, through email messages or intranet announcements)

Implement Issue Specific Prevention Measures

Each form of workplace harassment requires different prevention measures. Therefore, it is important to educate yourself on different forms of harassment.

Preventing Sexual Harassment

For instance, workplaces can help prevent sexual harassment by:

  • creating a safe physical and online working environment
  • providing information, instruction, training and support about the importance of preventing and addressing sexual harassment in the workplace
  • addressing unwanted or offensive behaviour early
  • encouraging reporting of sexual harassment and having effective complaints procedures.

Employees should also be aware that if they believe sexual harassment has happened (or is happening) at the workplace, they can talk to:

  • a supervisor or manager
  • a health and safety representative
  • the human resources department
  • a union
  • a lawyer

However, many employees may refuse to report due to the sensitive nature of the topic and/or fear of retaliation. As such, employers should set up effective whistleblowing mechanisms. Furthermore, read our comprehensive guide on sexual harassment investigations in the workplace to learn interview tips and key documents specific to sexual harassment.

Preventing Cyberbullying

Cyberbullying is also another common form of workplace harassment. Although Cyberbullying shares many similarities with more traditional methods of bullying, it has the potential to be more aggressive and escalate a lot faster. The anonymity, large audience, range of attack methods, lack of face-to-face communication and ability to contact the victim 24 hours a day contribute to the severity of Cyberbullying.

It is important that employers recognise that addressing Cyber-bullying is essential for creating a safe and productive working environment. In general, the significance of Cyberbullying is underestimated and consequently is not prioritised as an issue requiring attention.

Many employers don’t take it seriously, especially when the technology being used is poorly understood. Issues that appear to be trivial or based on a personal gripe can have a devastating impact in the workplace. Employers and Employees who recognise this and actively seek to prevent it will be much better placed to avoid the negative consequences of Cyberbullying incidents.

Bullying and Cyber-bullying can seriously affect morale, cause undue fear and stress, emotional exhaustion and serious health and psychological issues. This can result in lost productivity, increase in staff absence and difficulty retaining staff in an unhealthy work environment. Employees and employers have a Duty of Care towards each other with respect to sensitive personal and political issues, especially when technology like email, instant messaging and social networking is involved.

The best way to prevent Cyber-bullying is through a combination of policy and education. Given there is no common or uniform legal definition of Cyber-Bullying then the first place to start is to consider that such behavior is a subset of harassment and bullying.

How Polonious can Help

Workplace harassment can emerge in many different forms. While clearly communicated policies and standards of behaviour can help ensure people do the right thing, it’s important to ensure there is an accessible complaints/reporting mechanism and fair investigation process when they do. This will not only ensure corrective action is taken, but the visibility of such action will discourage other misconduct as well as make complainants more willing to speak up. While this may seem like a bad thing to some, bringing issues into the light ensures they’re dealt with rather than rotting away at your corporate culture.