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Last updated: December 15, 2019

What Does Harassment Mean?

Harassment in the workplace refers to any instance in which an individual or group of individuals engage in a course of conduct against another worker that is unwelcome, demeaning, or offensive. The terms “bullying” and “mobbing” may be used to distinguish between harassment by an individual and harassment by a group of people.

An essential and agreed-upon feature of workplace harassment is that its effect on the victim escalates over time (wears them down). In this manner, harassment can be described as the systematic repetition of negative acts towards an individual to gradually greater effect.

Safeopedia Explains Harassment

Research into workplace harassment is a relatively new field of study. The first book on workplace harassment was written by Carol Brodsky in 1976, and scientific research into workplace harassment began approximately fifteen years later.

Rules and regulations regarding the nature of harassment vary widely. No single definition or standard exists between jurisdictions, researchers, or stakeholder organizations. Workplace harassment is commonly mediated through a combination of harassment policies, governed by the judgement of an individual employer or firm, and workplace regulations grounded in anti-harassment legislation and legal jurisprudence.

In the United States, workplace harassment is primarily governed by Title VII regulations. These state that unlawful harassment must be severe, unwelcome conduct that involves discrimination against an individual based on a protected status (e.g. race, sex, disability). The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) also states that workplace harassment issues are governed by its General Duty Clause requiring employers to maintain a healthy work environment; however, in practice this protection has never been enforced. There are no OSHA standards regarding workplace harassment or violence.

Other jurisdictions may have more comprehensive rules regulating harassment. In Canada there has been a significant push to expand harassment protections. The Province of Ontario’s Occupational Health and Safety Act (OHSA) contains broad anti-harassment regulations. Compliance with The Act requires all employers to have workplace harassment policies and provides employers with a specific duty to protect the mental health of their employees from injury resulting from harassment. This protection extends to protection against harassment from all persons in the workplace, including non-workers.


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