How to recognize the more subtle forms of workplace harassment

How to recognize the more subtle forms of workplace harassment

Your workplace could be a hostile work environment without you even realizing it. It’s not always easy to see harassment as it occurs. To determine if harassment is part of your company’s culture, pay close attention to how your colleagues and supervisors interact with each other and present themselves in group settings. Workplace harassment comes in many variations, and each of these forms has symptoms that can clue you in to the toxic behaviors that could be happening in your workplace.

Workplace harassment, sometimes known as workplace bullying, is listed as a form of discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, the primary anti-workplace discrimination law in the United States. Although harassment is illegal when it occurs based on one of the protected classes outlined in the Act, it happens every day largely because it can happen subtly. Often, employees remain silent out of fear of facing further harassment and other types of retaliation.

Bullying can also happen without being based on the victim’s race or other protected status. When this is the case, the victim typically has no recourse options other than alerting Human Resources to the bullying, ignoring the harassment, and ultimately, seeking a new job.

There are a few general symptoms of a hostile work environment, like a high employee turnover rate, complacency among employees and a hesitance to acknowledge systemic problems. If you hear phrases like “that’s just how he is” or “she’s always been that way” used to describe a manager or an individual in the workplace, there’s a strong chance you’re in a workplace where harassment is an ingrained part of the culture.

Below are three forms of subtle workplace harassment and how you can recognize them through your colleagues’ behavior.

  1. Isolation and exclusion

    Isolating an individual or a group of employees can not only hurt their feelings, it can harm their careers. When an employee is purposely kept out of projects, decisions, and workplace events that involve everyone else in their department or level, they can miss out on important opportunities to network, demonstrate their skills, and make important contributions to the company.

    Signs that an individual is being isolated or excluded include self-consciousness in the isolated individual that can manifest as overworking themselves in an effort to demonstrate their value. It can also manifest as attempting to undermine colleagues and harassing others in the workplace. It’s important to remember that a hostile work environment isn’t created in a vacuum – a harassment victim can become a harasser as a defense or coping mechanism, perpetuating the toxic environment and creating the next “generation” of harassers.

  2. Minimizing and ignoring

    When an employee expresses a concern only to have it invalidated or contradicted, their concern is being minimized. For example, an employee who brings up a concern that their team doesn’t have access to the resources they need and instead of being given time to explain the situation, is simply told their team needs to find more creative ways to work with what they have is being minimized. Another form of minimizing is downplaying an individual’s contributions to the company or their team. Ignoring the employee, on the other hand, means refusing to acknowledge their concerns or contributions.

    Minimizing and ignoring a victim can occur openly or in private. When it happens behind closed doors, the behavior can go unnoticed by others in the workplace for years. Often, these behaviors are used to establish and enforce hierarchies, such as a supervisor ignoring a subordinate’s suggestions in meetings as a way to get the employee to “know their place” despite the legitimacy of the employee’s suggestions.

    One sign an employee is being minimized or ignored is their social withdrawal. If somebody doesn’t speak up much at meetings or communicate about legitimate concerns, this could be because he or she is accustomed to being ignored and invalidated at work. When a frequently minimized or ignored employee does speak up, they might often use “buffer phrases” to discount their opinion, like “I could be wrong, but – ” and “I don’t know, but.”

  3. Pitting employees against each other

    At its core, workplace harassment is about control. Controlling the role each employee plays, how employees relate to each other, and who gets to advance are often motivations for workplace harassers. One effective way to maintain control of a group of employees is to pit them against each other to create internal conflict. Ways to create this environment include spreading rumors about individuals and showing explicit favoritism toward certain employees. When employees do not trust or like each other, they are less likely to discuss problems they face individually or work together to create solutions.

    Symptoms of a workplace divided by supervisor meddling include “factions” of employees, a “me vs. them” mentality among individuals, and a willingness to undermine and sabotage colleagues.

What you can do about workplace harassment

  1. Speak up

    Speak up about the signs of harassment you observe. If you notice a colleague seems to be anxious in group settings or socially withdrawn, make it a point to reach out to them and talk to them about what you’ve noticed. You could be the first person to validate their feelings and even cause them to recognize that they’re being mistreated. If your colleague chooses to file a harassment claim, you might be the one to help their claim by testifying about what you observed.

  2. Refuse to participate

    Another way to combat harassment in your workplace is to refuse to participate in it. Choosing to remain silent about the harassment you recognize is a way of condoning it that further perpetuates the hostile work environment. If you notice a colleague’s suggestions being contradicted or ignored during meetings, acknowledge those suggestions. Use your voice to support your coworker and show that ignoring them will not be tolerated. If you feel yourself being pushed into an unnecessarily competitive atmosphere, talk to your supervisor about your concerns and do not let yourself be pulled into employee conflicts.


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