3 types of workplace harassment to be aware of

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2 in 5 people have experienced an incident at work such as bullying, discrimination or harassment. While bullying may be a difficult term to define and discrimination easier to, harassment can take a number of forms and incorporate both bullying and discrimination.

In this blog post we will talk about three types of workplace harassment that can take place, what they are for people who are unsure if what they experienced or witnessed constitutes harassment, and above all – how to tackle and prevent it.

What is harassment in the workplace?

Harassment is when someone is made to feel unsafe in the workplace, however harassment does not have to be done face-to-face and can even affect those who work remotely. It can be verbal, written, physical (sexual or aggressive) or even done through looks or gestures and other hostile or unwanted acts.

How common is workplace harassment?

Statistics vary from different studies about those who have been harassed at work depending on the type of harassment and the victim and while it is true anyone can experience it, figures for women – particularly those of colour, who identify as LGBTQ or have a disability – that have experienced sexual harassment are consistently higher.

What are the different types of harassment in the workplace?

1. Sexual harassment

Sexual harassment is unwanted acts of a sexual nature that can be one-off incidents or ongoing behaviour. These include but are not limited to:

  • Inappropriate comments or innuendos
  • Remarks about somebody’s body or clothes
  • Unwanted messages, calls, gifts or stalking
  • Pressure for dates or sexual activity, especially if it involves promises or threats against the person and their job security
  • Unwanted physical or non-physical contact, which includes staring and looks

Research by the Government Equalities Office shows that 72% of the UK population have experienced at least one form of sexual harassment in their lifetime and 29% of them (30% among women and 27% among men) experienced it at work or in a work-related environment. However, another study shows that 3 in 4 workplace sexual harassment claims go unreported.

Sexual harassment is one of the most common forms of problematic behaviour that we hear and read about happening in the news which can lead to lawsuits or people leaving or being dismissed (including the victim), which can affect a company’s reputation and profitability.

2. Psychological harassment

Psychological harassment is often non-physical harassment that is also very common in workplaces and can range in overtness. Less overt harassment is common though it can be harder to prove or, for some people, to talk about because they are not always sure what happened was harassment. Examples of psychological harassment include:

  • Unpleasant words and behaviours, which can include non-verbal communication (e.g. emails or looks)
  • Excluding someone from meetings or events
  • Spreading rumours about someone or discussing things about them behind their back, although this can sometimes even be done with them knowing
  • Belittling someone or berating them, which can sometimes be done both in public and private

Psychological harassment can also be classed as bullying, though harassment is considered unlawful, while bullying isn’t necessarily. It can sometimes be discriminatory based on one or more of the victim’s protected characteristics.

As mentioned, some people might not realise an incident that happened to them is psychological harassment but it can nevertheless have an adverse effect on the victim’s mental health and wellbeing. According to our research, 64% of people have said experiencing workplace harassment has impacted their mental health with 67% saying they have suffered anxiety because of it, and it has also shown to have affected their absenteeism, presenteeism and productivity.

3. Physical harassment

Statistics from the Health and Safety Executive report in 2019/2020 show that there were 688,000 incidents of violence at work during that period (both assaults and threats). Although in terms of percentages only 3% of the offenders were the victim’s colleague, in numbers that still amounts to 20,640 incidents between colleagues. Physical harassment can usually be easier to prove than sexual and psychological harassment but harder to mitigate if there is retaliation or self-defence. Physical harassment can be:

  • Direct threats of intent to harm or threatening behaviour, showing actual physical contact doesn’t necessarily have to have taken place
  • Destroying somebody’s property
  • Throwing things at people
  • Physical attacks or moves to physically attack someone
  • Attacks such as allegedly playful arm punching, slapping or shoving can also be considered physical harassment depending on the context or if the victim felt uncomfortable, offended or was injured

Third-party harassment

Third-party harassment is also common in some workplaces. This is when the perpetrator or victim is not an employee of the company but a customer, client, supplier, contractor or an unofficial staff member (for example, a cleaner employed by the building’s management or an agency worker), and the harassment can be any of the above types.

Harassment from a third-party is both prevalent and sometimes a harder problem to solve for employers. A poll by TUC showed that 36% of 18 to 34 year olds who have experienced some form of harassment, abuse or violence at work said the perpetrator was a third-party and a shocking 70% of them had been subjected to it three or more times.

The Equality Act 2010 has been through some revisions since its introduction, including the repeal of making employers liable for the harassment of their employees by a third party. This could soon change again though. However, the government is clear that employers have a responsibility to take reasonable steps to protect their staff from third party harassment where they know, or ought to know, that their staff are at risk.

How to tackle and prevent workplace harassment

So what are some reasonable steps? While organisations should of course have anti-harassment policies in place, the statistics we have outlined in this blog show that preventing and stopping harassment is still an issue. Here are just three simple tips that can help:

  • Make sure everyone is aware of the policies
    Before enforcing things such as zero tolerance, reiterating the company’s anti-bullying, discrimination and harassment policies as often and as clear as possible so that everyone knows where to find them and has the responsibility of reading them is the first step to prevention.
  • Make sure everyone knows what harassment is
    Saying you take bullying, discrimination and harassment claims seriously is not enough if you don’t expand on what they mean. Conducting training sessions or providing resources to all employees on the different types of workplace harassment and what constitutes harassment as well as bullying and discrimination is vital to allowing everyone to know the standards and behaviours that are expected of them. This can clear up issues that may arise from the perpetrator claiming they did not realise what they did was harassment in addition to knowing that they have breached a policyAs Tamsin McCarthy, Global Diversity & Inclusion Manager at DWF, said in our recent anti-bullying webinar, it is not just the job of HR, ED&I and senior leaders to let people know what is expected of them and what is acceptable or not, but everyone’s job to take responsibility for their actions and contribute to making the workplace safe for and inclusive of everyone.
  • Make sure everyone is comfortable speaking up
    Employers must understand that there are many barriers people face when it comes to reporting incidents of bullying, discrimination and harassment at work. These range from lack of trust in HR or their employer, fear of repercussions such as losing their job, being labelled a snitch, further problems coming from the perpetrator, not being believed, not being taken seriously or the person they are told to report it to is the perpetrator. For some who have reported incidents before (35%), it has led 36% of them to not trust their employer and 24% of people believing their organisation sweeps issues like bullying and harassment under the carpet, showing that encouraging everyone to just report it to their line manager or HR is not a simple solution.

For many, the option to report anonymously can be a huge help to them and heavily reduce the aforementioned barriers as well as provide them support they need, since from our research 71% of people said at the time of the incident, they felt like they had nobody to turn to and 73% say they felt like their colleagues didn’t step in to support them. And we found that 62% of people would be more likely to report an incident if they could do so anonymously. An anonymous reporting system like the one Culture Shift provides will allow the organisation to get a truer and bigger picture of what is happening so they can track trends and take targeted action. You can read more about why we champion the power and importance of anonymous reporting here, understand the pros and cons of it here, find out the answers to any questions and concerns you may have here or contact us.

How can we help you?

Reach out to our dedicated team who will be happy to answer any questions you may have.

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