In an article written by Lolly Daskal for it found that a massive ‘90% of workplace harassments are never officially reported.’

Harassment is multi-faceted in the nature of its forms. It can take on more than one shape and it is important to understand not only its emotional impact but also that of its legal ramifications and to act appropriately as a manager and organisation.

Harassment differs from bullying and is protected by law. Previously we looked at bullying within the workplace prompted by a situation experienced by a client of mine. In this blog I’d like to explore the identification of harassment, the faces it can take and why it’s important to act responsibly when handling these cases.

Defining harassment: how the law views harassment

The UK law protects harassment as unwanted behaviour that is related to one of the following:

  • age
  • sex
  • disability
  • gender (including gender reassignment)
  • marriage and civil partnership
  • pregnancy and maternity
  • race
  • religion or belief
  • sexual orientation

‘Half of British women and a fifth of men have been sexually harassed at work or a place of study, a BBC survey says.

Of the women who said they had been harassed, 63% said they didn’t report it to anyone, and 79% of the male victims kept it to themselves.’

Within the US harassment is defined and governed by each individual state law;

‘Harassment is governed by state laws, which vary by state, but is generally defined as a course of conduct which annoys, threatens, intimidates, alarms, or puts a person in fear of their safety. Harassment is unwanted, unwelcomed and uninvited behavior that demeans, threatens or offends the victim and results in a hostile environment for the victim. Harassing behavior may include, but is not limited to, epithets, derogatory comments or slurs and lewd propositions, assault, impeding or blocking movement, offensive touching or any physical interference with normal work or movement, and visual insults, such as derogatory posters or cartoons.’

A survey by CNBC in 2017 discovered that of those surveyed about harassment 16 percent of those aged 18 to 34 said they have been victims, while 25 percent of 50- to 64-year-olds say they have been.

The justice department of South Africa protects persons under the Harassment Act 2011. Harassment according to the department is stated as;

‘Harassment under the Act includes both direct and indirect conduct that either causes harm or that inspires the person complaining of harassment (“the complainant”) to reasonably believe that harm may be caused. Such conduct includes following, watching, pursuing or accosting of the complainant or someone in a close relationship with the complainant such as a spouse or family member.

Harassment also includes contact through verbal communication aimed at the complainant. The Act also recognises electronic communication that causes harm or makes the complainant feel in danger of being harmed as harassment.

The Act mentions several forms of written communication as capable of being contact for the purposes of harassment, such as letters, packages and e-mails.

It also includes sexual harassment, which means “any unwelcome sexual attention from a person who knows or who reasonably knows that such attention is unwelcome”. Such sexual attention includes unwelcome behaviour, suggestions, messages or remarks of a sexual nature that have the effect of “offending, intimidating or humiliating” the complainant or a person who has a close relationship with the complainant.’

As you can see the definitions for each country are clear. Whichever country you reside within as an organisation it is prudent to being aware of what harassment is defined as and its legal implications.


Examples of harassment


Sexual harassment

An Harvard Business Review article states that, ‘The wave of sexual harassment reports in recent months has resulted in the dethroning of high-profile men in media and entertainmentsportsbusiness, and politics. At the same time, social media, such as Twitter, Instagram and Facebook, have made public conversation about the issue hyper visible and easier to organize — as was the case for the #MeToo movement.’

The development sector, too, is not without its perpetrators and victims of sexual exploitation. One of the biggest global charities – Oxfam had its own scandal, which quickly exposed revelations of similar abuse of workers and beneficiaries in Save the Children and UNAIDS, causing the UK’s Department for International Development (DFID) to implement a crackdown on abuse within the sector. They asked their NGO partners about safeguarding policies, and initiated reforms, sector-wide, such as more rigorous background checks of staff. In March, DFID hosted a U.K. safeguarding summit and in October, there will be a global summit. In addition, the U.N. introduced a 24-hour hotline to address issues of sexual exploitation and abuse.

Of course, the sexual harassment movement online has highlighted the problem but it is wise to understand and be aware that it is not always directed at any one gender. Balance careers offer some examples that sexual harassment could materialise as:

  • Sharing sexually inappropriate images or videos, such as pornography or salacious gifs, with co-workers
  • Sending suggestive letters, notes, or e-mails
  • Displaying inappropriate sexual images or posters in the workplace
  • Telling lewd jokes, or sharing sexual anecdotes
  • Making inappropriate sexual gestures
  • Staring in a sexually suggestive or offensive manner, or whistling
  • Making sexual comments about appearance, clothing, or body parts
  • Inappropriate touching, including pinching, patting, rubbing, or purposefully brushing up against another person
  • Asking sexual questions, such as inquiries about someone’s sexual history or their sexual orientation
  • Making offensive comments about someone’s sexual orientation or gender identity

The other faces of harassment

There are many shapes and faces of harassment. Balance careers offer some additional examples of what harassment can look like;

  • Making negative comments about an employee’s personal religious beliefs, or trying to convert them to a certain religious ideology
  • Using racist slang, phrases, or nicknames
  • Making remarks about an individual’s skin colour or other ethnic traits
  • Displaying racist drawings, or posters that might be offensive to a particular group
  • Making offensive gestures
  • Making offensive reference to an individual’s mental or physical disability
  • Sharing inappropriate images, videos, emails, letters, or notes
  • Offensively talking about negative racial, ethnic, or religious stereotypes
  • Making derogatory age-related comments
  • Wearing clothing that could be offensive to a particular ethnic group
  • Non-sexual harassment includes any comment, action, or type of behaviour that is threatening, insulting, intimidating, or discriminatory and upsets the workplace environment.

Future employees and the public learning of harassment about any given brand or organisation view those firms as having cultural problems. Companies need to ensure they are proactive and responsive to claims. This has a greater impact of benefit for victims but also the perception of any organisation.

Understand your duty of care and responsibility

The CIPD website says that, ‘harassment and bullying remain significant workplace issues despite increasing awareness of the problem. Research shows that employees who are the recipients of these behaviours are more likely to be depressed and anxious, less satisfied with their work, have a low opinion of their managers, and want to leave the organisation.’

As a manager and organisation, you have the responsibility and duty of care not only to the victim but in abiding by the law. It is important to ensure you have the correct protocols and practices in place to deal with any claims that may arise. Not forgetting of course to handle cases with discretion, sensitivity and empathy. Whilst also ensuring you follow the line of the law.


Combat harassment: Be Your Own Change and Cultivate The Right Culture

In a forbes article stating how to build a culture that thrives- one of its well-made points quite rightly discusses leading by example, ‘If your leaders don’t buy into cultural change and healthy cultural environments, don’t expect your employees or stakeholders to follow suit. Too often, leaders know what it takes for the team to succeed but don’t hold themselves to the same or even higher standards. For leaders who live it and don’t just talk values, they can expect the trickle down to be what they want — a positive culture. – John M. O’Connor, Career Pro Inc.

 Regularly training staff, supervisors and managers, as well as ensuring you protect employees and your organisation by well-placed processes is an important step when combating harassment within your workplace.

A no tolerant and transparent approach is key to stamping out any unwanted behaviour. Create a culture where the staff well-being is of high priority and an open-door policy of communication with employees where staff are encouraged to speak with their superiors if they have any concerns.

Movement comes with leadership. Be the change you seek and create the culture that your future self can be proud of.


If you feel that you or your organisation would benefit from leadership development, including coaching and mentoring, please get in touch to explore the possibilities open to you.

If you would like to, please download my coaching programme brochure – Women’s Leadership Coaching – For Women in Development – specifically designed for women working in global development.

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