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The 5 Most Common Types of Workplace Harassment

Feb 3, 2020
Deb Muller

Despite the significant changes brought about by the #MeToo movement over the past two years, harassment in the workplace is still a common– and ugly– problem. As the national landscape slowly evolves to better represent the voices of the affected, HR professionals continue to play a pivotal role in furthering progress by finding ways to improve employee relations practices, establish standards and implement new-and-improved best practices.


When equipped with the right information, HR and employee relations professionals can be instrumental in identifying and eliminating all types of harassment in the workplace before the repercussions escalate. Whether the harassment is based on sex, gender, race, ability level, or something else, early identification of inappropriate behavior is the best way to protect employees and create a safe and happy environment for the entire team.

Here are the 5 most common types of workplace harassment to be on the lookout for.

1. Sexual Harassment in the Workplace

From unwelcome and offensive comments to unwanted physical advances and requests for sexual favors, the #1 most common form of workplace harassment is familiar to us all. Still, despite the visibility and empowerment of the #MeToo movement, many employees are unwilling to report sexual harassment in the workplace.

Why the hesitation? As we’ve learned from the recent news in Hollywood, politics, and sports, women (and men) who come forward with claims of sexual harassment and/or gender discrimination often have their stories diminished and their reputations attacked. In our recent employee experience survey from October 2019, we found that 46% of employees worry about retaliation when it comes to deciding whether or not to report issues at work.

 Read the full 2019 Employee Experience Survey Findings 

In the wake of this groundbreaking movement, it’s up to HR leaders to encourage victims and witnesses to come forward without fear of consequences.

The only effective way to address this pervasive type of harassment is to bring it to the surface. Unwelcome sexual advances and inappropriate sexual or gender-related remarks between employees happen, and although sexual harassment towards women is most common, people of all genders can be both victims and perpetrators.

2. Disability Harassment

Disability harassment refers to unfavorable treatment or harassment of employees with a physical or mental disability. According to the Americans with Disabilities Act, “a person is considered disabled, if he or she either actually has, or is thought to have, a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits what the ADA calls a “major life activity.” Major life activities are the basic components of any person’s life — including walking, talking, seeing, and learning.  This type of harassment can also include people with life-threatening diseases such as cancer and ongoing diseases like lupus and MS.

Disability harassment is one of the most widespread forms of harassment in the workplace. According to a recent study by the EEOC, 32.2% of workplace discrimination cases filed in 2018 were for disability harassment–only 1% behind sexual harassment cases. So, what does this type of everyday harassment look like? It can be overt, such as using slurs, making inappropriate jokes, or excluding employees from certain work-related functions, or it can be more subtle.

For example, a manager may pass up an employee in a wheelchair for a job that requires driving long distances based on the incorrect assumption that they can’t handle the task at hand. Education from HR can play a huge role in eliminating instances of discrimination and harassment, creating a better work environment for employees of all ability levels.

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3. Racial Harassment

Racism is everywhere, but identifying racial harassment in the workforce can be complicated.  What one employee may call “an innocent joke” may be perceived as purposefully demeaning, or even threatening to the joke’s recipient. Displaying discriminatory symbols on or offline, mocking a person’s accent, making unwelcome comments about a person’s race, telling derogatory jokes, using racial slurs, and expressing general intolerance toward any particular race group are all common displays of racial harassment.

Listening to the victims and creating a safe environment in which they can report and discuss any and all signs of potential racial discrimination can help you address and deal with the problem up front. Additionally, it is important to hold employees accountable for what they post online whenever it crosses a line or makes another person feel uncomfortable.

You can’t change what’s in peoples’ hearts, but you can, with many precedents and laws on your side, remove anyone from your team who refuses to respect their peers on the basis of race.

4. Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity Harassment

These categories refer to harassment that involves derogatory, offensive, or demeaning remarks based on a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity, including transgender status, but there are key differences between the two types of harassment which are important to understand. First, “sexual orientation” refers to whether a person is homosexual (gay), heterosexual (straight), or bisexual, while “gender identity” refers to a person’s self-identification as a man or a woman, as opposed to one’s anatomical sex at birth.

How common is harassment based on sexual orientation and gender identity? The Williams Institute on Sexual Orientation Law and Public Policy found that a disheartening 43% of gay workers have experienced mistreatment at work because of their sexual orientation or gender status.

Much like sexual harassment, the victim and the harasser in these instances can be any gender or orientation. The victim and harasser can also be the same sex. It is essential for HR professionals to have the right information about what constitutes sexual orientation and gender identity harassment and how they may be connected to other forms of workplace discrimination and harassment such as marital status.

5. Ageism

According to a 2019 study on “Ageism in the Workplace” age discrimination is surprisingly common… and growing quickly. More than 1 in 3 workers feel their age has prevented them from getting a job after turning 40. And worse, age discrimination is vastly underreported with employees neglecting to file a claim with HR due to fear of retaliation.

While many companies have openly addressed the first four forms of harassment in the workplace, some employees still do not receive any form of age discrimination training. As HR professionals, we have the power to change this by adding ageism training to our current educational offerings and encouraging employees to speak up when they see or hear age-related harassment and discrimination at work.

Of course, the list does not end here. It is also important to be on the lookout for discrimination based on religious beliefs, pregnancy, national origin, genetic information, marital status, conviction record, and more.

Mitigating the Risk of Harassment

Interested in getting more details on preventing and dealing with harassment in the workplace? Our #MeToo in the Workplace: A Special Report provides human resources and employee relations leaders the insights they need to create more responsive and safe workplaces in the wake of #MeToo. The survey findings will help organizations rethink what processes are in place to ensure that incidents such as those we read about either don’t happen or are not tolerated when they do occur.

Fighting harassment in the workplace means having a strong, consistent protocol for addressing it. You need to have a system in place for employees to report workplace harassment so management can document it and address it in the most fair and transparent manner. HR Acuity provides the risk management tools and services HR professionals need to conduct their investigations.

Ready to see how HR Acuity can help your organization streamline its investigations process? Request a demo of our employee relations case management software.

Deb Muller
Deb Muller is the CEO of HR Acuity, employee relations case management and investigations software that combines documentation, process, and human expertise so organizations can meet the challenge of managing employee relations in the modern world.

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