If you’ve ever felt uncomfortable at work, you’re not alone. Workplace harassment and discrimination can take many forms, some of which are subtle and hard to detect.
Workplace harassment can include obvious things like:
- Unwanted or inappropriate comments
- Verbal threats
- Unwanted physical touching
- Menacing body language
- Digital harassment or cyberbullying
- Inappropriate favors or attention
It can also include more nuanced interactions. Let’s take a closer look at how to tell if you’ve been harassed or discriminated against at work.
What is harassment?
Certain behavior might make you uncomfortable, and you still may not be sure if it falls under the category of harassment.
For example, let’s say your supervisor makes a homophobic or racist joke, and you’re offended.
Or, let’s say you’re experiencing clinical depression, and your manager makes comments suggesting that depression isn’t a “real thing”—you’re just being “lazy” and need to “cheer up.”
Do those situations count as harassment?
Yes, these are all unacceptable, and they’re technically considered harassment—provided one of a few conditions is true:
- The situation is severe enough to create a hostile work environment
- If going along with the joke without speaking up becomes a condition of employment
- If speaking up results in an adverse employment decision
If putting up with homophobic jokes becomes a condition of keeping your job, it’s harassment. If your manager’s comments about your clinical depression are severe enough to create a hostile work environment where you can’t adequately or safely perform your job to the level required, it’s harassment. If that same scenario results in an adverse employment decision, where you’re demoted or given fewer shifts, for example, it’s harassment.
What is discrimination?
Workplace discrimination is defined by disparate treatment or disparate impact based on protected characteristics, including a person’s race, religion, gender, national origin, pregnancy, disability, age, sexual orientation, and others, depending on laws in your state or country.
Some examples of disparate treatment include:
- Your employer doesn’t give you a promotion because your manager thinks you’re likely to get pregnant soon
- You’re a qualified job applicant and don’t get hired because the hiring manager doesn’t trust Muslims
- You’re not invited to a work lunch because you’re gay and the colleague organizing the lunch disapproves of your lifestyle
These are all examples of disparate treatment, where someone is treated differently from their colleagues and that treatment is based on a protected characteristic such as race, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, religion, etc.
As another example, your employer might have a policy that applies to everyone and stipulates that everyone:
- Must be six feet tall
- Must speak English
- Must work Saturdays
- Must work evenings
If this policy isn’t necessary for the operation of the organization, it is an example of disparate impact, where a policy that applies to everyone has a disproportionately adverse impact on people who have a protected characteristic or are members of a protected class. (See our legal handbook for a deeper dive.)
What to do if it happens to you
If you believe you’ve been harassed or discriminated against at work, you have options. You can take several different steps, including:
- Use your company’s reporting process: Call a hotline, use a web form, or talk to HR or your manager
- Create an anonymous report using a tool such as Spot
- Address the offending person directly, if it feels safe to do so
Can I get fired for filing a report?
It’s illegal for an employer to retaliate against you for reporting harassment or discrimination. They’re required to investigate your concerns and take reasonable steps to address the issue.
There are many valid reasons to be wary of reporting through traditional channels. You might worry about bias or unfair treatment following the report. (It may be illegal, but, according to one 2003 study, 75% of people who spoke out about workplace mistreatment experienced some form of retaliation.) Or you might simply not want to talk to HR—or any other human at work—about an emotional or upsetting experience.
How to create a (free) anonymous report with Spot
Spot allows employees to document incidents of workplace harassment and discrimination, and then decide whether to submit the report to their company. Spot lets your company ask follow-up questions without revealing your identity.
Even if your company isn’t using Spot yet, you can use it for free to document what happened, keep a private report, and then edit and submit the report if you choose.
Spot’s bot will guide you through the process—take as much time as you need. No human will see what you discuss with Spot unless you submit a report, which you can do anonymously.