What Is Not Harassment in the Workplace?
Certain employment myths feed the idea that employees have more rights than they actually do, meaning that employees often accuse managers of harassment. After all, no one likes to be called out for poor work performance or be reminded of the workplace rules. But, these actions are not illegal.
Workplace harassment is unlawful when the offensive actions or comments continue long term or create an environment that a reasonable person would evaluate as hostile or abusive.
When actions do not meet the above definition, it is not harassment. At work, employees must remember that they are under certain expectations and obligations to their employer. To help you recognize what is not harassment, keep reading for 9 examples of employment situations that are not harassment.
9 Examples in the Workplace that are NOT Harassment
1. The one-off inappropriate joke or remark
One sexual joke or lewd remark once ever is not illegal. It’s also not illegal to compliment other coworkers on their clothing or for a boss to request that an employee dress more professionally. Of course, if that one comment is the starting point for further sexual comments or actions due to that employee’s legally protected class, this could become a hostile work environment.
Not Harassment: On her way to the break room, Ann stopped to chat with Doug, who was walking the opposite direction. He smiled at her and said, “You look nice today.” Then, he headed to his office.
2. Consensual behavior
Most workplaces have policies in place prohibiting dating between coworkers. However, if two coworkers agree to have a relationship, a lovers’ quarrel would be viewed as consensual. And if a coworker asks someone on a date once, that is not harassment. However, when one party communicates that they are not interested, repeated asks for dates would be viewed as harassment.
Not Harassment: Jaci and Miles are coworkers. On Monday, Miles asked Jaci out, but she declined. He has not asked again.
3. Playing favorites
While the working world promises equal employment opportunities and fair treatment, sometimes an employer still has favorites. And that’s not illegal. Managers and supervisors can play favorites as long as no employee is a part of the legally protected class. When an employer does not treat a legally protected class employee fairly, this can turn into a lawsuit.
Not Harassment: Bob and Neil have been working for their boss for the last five years. Bob thinks that the boss likes Neil better because he takes Neil to luncheons and gives him prime assignments. But it’s not harassment.
4. Boss yelling at you for no reason
Not all bosses are created equal. Some are meaner than others. If a boss screams at you for no reason at all or relays your work assignments with yelling, this is not illegal. Calling you a “stupid idiot” or a “mean jerk” is not workplace harassment either. Yelling only becomes harassment when the boss is calling you discriminatory slurs that focus on your legally protected status.
Not Harassment: Seth arrived at his shift and began setting up for clients. His boss arrived, saying, “You, stupid idiot. Read the sign. We’ve changed our process. Why do I have stupid employees?”
5. Extra work assignments
An employer has the right to assign more work to you or to adjust your work assignments at any time within your employment unless you have an employment contract. Although it might feel like harassment to be given more work, it is not. Once again, the only time that extra work assignments might become harassment is if it is implemented unfairly with an employee of a legally protected class.
Not Harassment: Zion works as a secretary at a large design firm. Her boss pulls her aside and tells Zion that she needs to plan the upcoming office party. It’s not in her job description, but the person who usually does such assignments is out on maternity leave.
6. Work process correction
Employees sometimes get angry that a manager or supervisor is correcting them on a work process, claiming that this is harassment. Sometimes a manager may be rude or disrespectful, but if the employee just quits without seeking resolution, there’s no case for harassment. Stay at the job and try to work the problem out rather than jumping to conclusions.
Not Harassment: Eli had been working as food runner for only a week when a manager checked up on him, asking if he’d grabbed the right items. Eli was offended that the manager didn’t trust him to know what to do. The manager told him to “pipe down” and do his job.
7. Not a legally protected class
Every American receives certain employment rights; however, some workers receive further protections due to their legally protected class. For example, a white, heterosexual male who complains about being called an idiot has very little protections under the law. Legally protected classes include age, disability, race, sex, national origin, and religion.
Not Harassment: Mark works in a warehouse, preparing shipments. His supervisor continually yells at him, insulting his intelligence and strength. Mark thinks this is harassment, but he is one of many Caucasians, has no disability, and fits no other class.
8. Repeat urine tests
The federal government hasn’t issued any law about regulating urine tests. Therefore, a company, at its own discretion, can require urine tests whenever they so desire. Of course, the law does look for consistency in the company’s policy for handling the distribution of urine tests. But, frequent demands of a urine test is not harassment.
Not Harassment: Juan was accused of being on drugs by a coworker. Management made Juan take a urine test when he came in for work. His company tests randomly and follows up on all accusations.
9. Boss disrespect
Sometimes employees believe that it’s harassment when their boss “disrespects” them in some way, whether that’s asking for paperwork from a doctor for an FMLA application or not inviting the entire staff to dinner. In many areas of employment, the boss can make decisions at his or her own discretion. A social slight is not enough to warrant a case for workplace harassment.
Not Harassment: Ellen was not invited to lunch with the rest of the staff. She’s felt that no one likes her at her job, and her boss disrespects her when she speaks up.
True harassment can happen at any time, and be initiated by a manager, coworker, or even a third-party customer. When improper conduct is recognized, the employee should report it to their supervisor or the HR department. From there, the employer should take steps to bring an end to the harassment. If nothing is done to protect the employee from harassment, consult a lawyer.
If you have experienced the legal definition of harassment at work, contact an employment lawyer who will know how to navigate your case and your rights under the law.