How to identify bullying and harassment in the workplace

Bullying and harassment are two of the most common forms of misconduct in the workplace. Recent research has found that in the US and UK alone, over a quarter (26%) of office workers in each region have reported experiencing harassment or bullying at some point in their careers. In fact, the 2021 US Workplace Bullying Survey from the Workplace Bullying Institute noted that 30% of US workers had direct experience being bullied that year—up 57% from 2017.  

Workplace harassment and bullying can have serious effects on morale, productivity, and overall performance—both for individual employees and the business at large. However, knowing the types of behaviors and warning signs that indicate someone is being harassed or bullied at work can help create better prevention strategies and improve performance across the board. In this post, we’ll explain the different types of workplace harassment and bullying, provide examples, and share tips for how to spot bullying and harassment in the workplace. 

Workplace harassment and bullying examples 

Understanding the different types of workplace harassment and bullying is an important step in learning how to spot warning signs of these behaviors in the workplace. Let’s take a look at  some examples.

Types of workplace harassment 

The United Nations defines harassment as any improper and unwelcome conduct that might reasonably be expected or  perceived to annoy, alarm, abuse, demean, intimidate, belittle, humiliate, or embarrass another person. Harassment may take the form of words, gestures, or actions which create an intimidating, hostile or offensive work environment. 

Here are some examples of workplace harassment: 

  • Discriminatory. This can be any unfair treatment or arbitrary distinction based on their protected classes such as race, color, religion, sex (including sexual orientation, gender identity, or pregnancy), national origin, age, disability, or genetic information (including family medical history).  
  • Physical or violent. This could involve making threats, destroying property, or physically intimidating or attacking someone else. This type of conduct in the workplace might be criminal and result in charges. 
  • Online. This can happen during or outside work hours and might include things like sharing personal details about a coworker in a mass chat, spreading lies about a victim in an office chat, or sending repeated and unwelcome messages of a sexual nature to a coworker.
  • Sexual. This can include unwelcome sexual advances, a request for favors of a sexual nature, verbal abuse, and physical altercations of a sexual nature. Likewise, hiring decisions or disciplinary decisions made on the basis or sex, gender, or sexual orientation can also fall into the realm of sexual harassment.
  • Third-party. This occurs when a client, customer, contractor, or another person from outside of the business harasses an employee of the company. In many cases, victims of this type of harassment are in lower-level positions and are inexperienced, making them more vulnerable. 

Harassment becomes unlawful where:  

  • Enduring the offensive conduct becomes a condition of continued employment.
  • The misconduct is severe or pervasive enough to create a work environment that a reasonable person would consider intimidating, hostile, or abusive.
  • The misconduct must be objectionably viewed as inappropriate from the perspective of a reasonable person.   

Types of workplace bullying 

Bullying is also a common type of workplace harassment. Unlike harassment, bullying is not classified as illegal—but it can be classed as harassment if the behavior is repeated over time to the point that it creates an intimidating, hostile, or abusive environment.  

Here are some examples of workplace bullying:  

  • Verbal. This could include mockery, humiliation, jokes, gossip, or other spoken abuse.  
  • Intimidating. This might include threats, social exclusion in the workplace, spying, or other invasions of privacy. 
  • Related to work performance. Examples include wrongful blame, work sabotage or interference, or stealing or taking credit for ideas. 
  • Retaliatory. In some cases, talking about the bullying can lead to accusations of lying, further exclusion, refused promotions, or other retaliation. 
  • Institutional. Institutional bullying happens when a workplace accepts, allows, and even encourages bullying to take place. This bullying might include unrealistic production goals, forced overtime, or singling out those who can’t keep up. 

A challenge with bullying is that it can be subtle. One helpful way to spot bullying in the workplace is to consider how others might view what’s happening. This can depend on the circumstances, but if most colleagues view a specific behavior as unreasonable the it is likely bullying behavior. 

How to identify bullying and harassment in the workplace 

Warning signs of workplace harassment or bullying can vary. Below are just some examples of how to spot whether you or someone you know is experiencing harassment or bullying at work. 

Spotting signs of workplace harassment 

  • Coworkers make offensive or derogatory jokes directed at you or when you’re around. 
  • Racial or ethnic slurs are used against you, even if the person saying them says it’s only in jest. 
  • Someone pressures you for dates or sexual favors. 
  • A colleague makes unwelcome comments about your religion or religious garments. 
  • Your supervisor or manager, purposely or playfully, shoves you in a way that hurts or makes you uncomfortable.
  • Someone keeps sending you offensive images or videos over chat or email, despite your protests to stop. 

Spotting signs of workplace bullying 

  • Coworkers might become quiet or leave the room when you walk in, or they might simply ignore you. 
  • You might be left out of office parties, team lunches, or casual chitchat. 
  • Your supervisor or manager might check on you often or ask you to meet multiple times a week without a clear reason. 
  • You may be asked to do new tasks or tasks outside your typical duties without training or help, even when you request it. 
  • Your work may seem frequently monitored, to the point where you begin to doubt yourself and have difficulty with your regular tasks.
  • You might be asked to do difficult or seemingly pointless tasks and be ridiculed or criticized when you can’t get them done.
  • You may notice a pattern of your documents, files, equipment, or other work-related or personal items going missing. 

The key takeaway 

Everyone should have the right to work in an environment that is free of harassment and bullying. For companies to achieve this goal, employees of all position levels have to understand the different types of workplace harassment and bullying and how to spot the signs of this kind of behavior. 

To learn more about how to identify and prevent bullying and harassment in the workplace, request a demo of LRN's newly designed anti-harassment, bullying, and discrimination training.