While workplace harassment has long been a concern for HR professionals, the #MeToo movement brought the fight against harassment—particularly sexual harassment and assault—into the broader public conversation. Many who have been targeted by workplace harassment and abuse have since come forward to share their #MeToo stories and the negative impacts on their mental health and wellbeing. 

In 2019, the U.S Equal Employment Opportunity Commission reported 72,676 charges of workplace harassment. Many more incidences may have gone unreported due to fear of retaliation against employees or witnesses for coming forward to HR personnel, which can make gauging toxic office behavior challenging.

Workplace harassment can take the form of:

  • Physical threats or actions
  • Psychological harassment
  • Harassment on social media
  • Retaliation against those who report harassment
  • Sexual harassment

While there are laws in place to protect workers from harassment, it remains a challenge office leaders must address.

What is workplace harassment?

The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission defines workplace harassment as “unwelcome conduct that is based on race, color, religion, sex (including pregnancy), national origin, age (40 or older), disability or genetic information.” 

The EEOC adds that harassment becomes unlawful if:

  1. enduring harassment becomes a condition of continued employment, or 
  2. harassment is severe or pervasive enough to create a work environment that a reasonable person would consider intimidating, hostile, or abusive.

There are national and state laws in place to protect workers from many forms of harassment. Many laws that now protect workers, especially based on race, sexual orientation, and gender, are relatively modern.

Likewise, the psychological impacts of mental health on workers, and compounding societal factors like institutionalized racism, are a much larger focus today than in past eras of U.S. history.

Here is a timeline of some landmark laws that have impacted workplace harassment.

1938—Equal Pay Act (EPA): The EPA is part of the Fair Labor Standard Acts and states that gender cannot be a discriminating factor in employee compensation. However, women still make only 81 cents for every $1 a man makes in 2020. The largest gaps are between Black or African American and Hispanic women versus white men.

1964—Title VII of the Civil Rights Act: Title VII of the Civil Rights Act prohibits workplace discrimination based on race, color, national origin, sex, or religion.

Some states have enacted laws to protect transgender workers, concurrent with Title VII. For instance, California law protects transgender workers by including gender identity under the definition of “sex” within anti-discrimination statutes.

1967—Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA): This federal law protects workers who are 40 years or older from discrimination by employers. Discrimination may include unequal treatment; unequal impact of workplace policies; or harassment by employers, supervisors, or coworkers based on age. Some state laws protect workers under 40.

1990—The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA): Title I of the ADA protects qualified disabled workers from workplace discrimination by employers, employment agencies, labor groups, and joint labor-management committees. It also protects those with a history of disability or those associated with disabled individuals.

#MeToo: The #MeToo movement has focused heavily on rooting out sexual harassment and abuse and increasing public awareness. As a result, some new state laws have been enacted in places like California, New York, and Illinois.

These laws focus on issues such as:

  • mandatory sexual harassment training
  • making it easier to sue in state courts
  • banning the nondisclosure agreements
  • lengthening statutes of limitations
  • expanding workplace harassment protections to independent contractors

EEOC workplace harassment statistics

  • At least 70% of those who experience workplace harassment never report it.
  • 76% of witnesses of workplace harassment never report it.
  • One in four women face harassment in the workplace.
  • The EEOC recovered $385.7 million in enforcement, mediation, and litigation for workers alleging harassment in 2019.

How is workplace harassment perpetuated?

As HR professionals, step one of addressing these issues is to understand how harassment can be perpetuated in the office.

Stigma: Stigmas are negative stereotypes based on race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender identity, culture, mental illness, physical disabilities, and other characteristics. Stigmas can lead team members to be viewed and treated negatively by coworkers and office leaders.

A culture of silence: Many workers and witnesses don’t come forward about workplace harassment. They may feel intimidated or fear retaliation, or else they may feel supervisors or HR departments represent the company rather than their employees.

Lack of information or training: Employees may not fully understand their options in responding to harassment. A lack of education about discrimination, harassment, and the law for both employees and office leaders can lead to a toxic work environment.

What are the impacts of workplace harassment?

Employees who work in toxic workplaces can face many detrimental impacts, as can the companies that employ them.

Mental and physical health: Workplace harassment can lead to any number of mental health issues, including anxiety, stress, insomnia, and depression. These employees may also be more likely to need prescription and psychotropic medications. Physical health conditions such as ulcers and high blood pressure can occur.

Productivity: Harassment can create job performance issues, such as difficulty concentrating, low self-esteem, and trouble making decisions. They may spend time thinking about or planning ways to address harassment. This leads to lowered productivity.

Impacts on the office: Harassment can be a costly proposition for any workplace. These costs manifest in reduced productivity, hostile work environments, increased absenteeism and presenteeism, impact Workers’ Comp claims, and legal issues. Team leaders may also face the cost of increased turnover, loss of team loyalty, increased health care costs, and negative publicity.

How can we address and stop workplace harassment?

There are several tools HR leaders can use to address workplace harassment and stop it in its tracks. These are important steps toward building a happier, healthier office environment.

Training and education: All team members and office leaders should seek anti-harassment training opportunities. Are workplace policies understood and enforced? How do these coincide with federal and state laws? Laws and policies can evolve over time, so it’s crucial to stay current.

Have an HR plan for harassment claims: HR professionals can help address harassment by analyzing and adjusting their plan for how to handle claims. The right approach can help employees feel confident coming forward. Consider how to be more encouraging and compassionate, take better measures to protect the complainant, assess if the employee needs counseling, better document each complaint, seek the right disciplinary action for harassers, and other steps the company may need to take.

Mental health resources: Mental health resources can help employees find solutions to psychological issues they face that are either worsened or caused by harassment.  When accessing mental health treatment is made easier, workers may more readily find pathways to solutions that fit their needs. The sooner employees can find appropriate mental health care, the sooner they can receive treatment and improve their wellbeing and performance.

Spring Health’s peer-reviewed machine-learning models focus on finding precise mental health outcomes for individuals. Employees shouldn’t have to face a drawn-out process of trial and error that can delay the right treatment and slow their recovery.

Spring Health combines clinically-proven technology with world-class providers to deliver precisely what each employee needs. These personalized solutions range from self-care and mindfulness solutions to clinical treatment and medication. Contact us to learn more about what Spring Health offers.

Connor Holmes
Connor is a Spring Health staff writer.

November 6, 2020