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What behaviour is classed as harassment?

Harassment can take many forms and occur in various settings, such as the workplace, school, public spaces, or online. Generally, harassment involves unwelcome behavior that targets an individual or group and has the purpose or effect of violating their dignity or creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment. Harassment is usually based on protected characteristics like race, gender, religion, age, disability, or sexual orientation. It can be verbal, physical, written or graphic. Understanding what constitutes harassment and the various forms it can take is an important step in preventing and responding appropriately.

What are the laws around harassment?

Most countries have laws prohibiting harassment and setting out protections for individuals. These laws define harassment, establish procedures for reporting and investigating claims, and set out potential remedies or consequences. Key laws related to harassment include:

  • Title VII of the Civil Rights Act (US) – prohibits employment discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex and national origin. This includes harassment that creates a hostile work environment.
  • Age Discrimination in Employment Act (US) – prohibits harassment in the workplace based on age.
  • Americans with Disabilities Act (US) – prohibits workplace harassment based on disability.
  • Equality Act (UK) – prohibits harassment in the workplace and wider society based on protected characteristics like age, disability, gender reassignment, marriage/civil partnership, pregnancy/maternity, race, religion/belief, sex and sexual orientation.

These laws establish harassment as unlawful and provide legal recourse for individuals who experience prohibited forms of harassment. The specific provisions, protected classes and procedures vary between countries.

Types of unlawful harassment

Some key types of harassment that are prohibited under various laws include:

Sexual harassment

This involves unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature that can include sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, sexual jokes, sending sexually explicit images or texts, inappropriate touching, and other verbal or physical harassment of a sexual nature.

Racial harassment

This involves unwelcome conduct based on a person’s race or ethnic background. It can include verbal abuse, offensive jokes/comments, intimidating behavior, or unfair treatment relating to race.

Religious harassment

This involves unwelcome behavior that ridicules, demeans or offends based on religion or religious beliefs. For example, offensive comments or jokes about a person’s religious garments, practices or customs.

Disability harassment

This involves offensive remarks, hostile behavior or exclusion relating to a person’s disability. For example, bullying or intimidating a person based on disability.

Age harassment

This involves harassment targeting an individual based on their age. For example, constantly making fun of an older worker’s abilities or excluding them based on age stereotypes.

Sexual orientation harassment

This involves unwelcome conduct based on actual or perceived sexual orientation. For example, making homophobic comments or jokes about a person’s sexuality.

What behaviors can constitute unlawful harassment?

Harassment can take many forms. Some examples of behaviors that could be considered unlawful harassment include:

  • Unwelcome sexual advances, propositions, flirtations or requests for dates.
  • Threats, intimidation, name calling, insults or gestures based on protected characteristics.
  • Offensive jokes, slurs, epithets, insults or teasing based on protected characteristics.
  • Mocking, mimicking or belittling a person’s disability, religious customs or age-related characteristics.
  • Circulating or displaying written materials, publications, pictures or objects that denigrate a protected group.
  • Inappropriate touching, assault or blocking/interfering with normal work or movement.
  • Inequitable treatment, exclusion or segregation based on protected characteristics.
  • Displaying or circulating sexually suggestive or racially offensive objects, pictures, videos or emails.
  • Repeated unwanted social or romantic attention despite requests to stop.
  • Threatening to take away work or benefits for refusing sexual advances (i.e. ‘quid pro quo’ harassment).

This is not an exhaustive list but illustrates some examples of verbal, physical and visual conduct that could contribute to an unlawful hostile, intimidating or offensive environment. It is important to consider the full context, nature, scope and frequency of behaviors when determining if they cross the line into illegal harassment.

Factors in determining if behavior is harassing

Several factors are considered when judging if misconduct constitutes harassment including:

Unwelcome conduct

Behavior must be unwelcome to the recipient to be classed as harassment. Conduct is unlawful if a reasonable person would find it hostile, intimidating or humiliating even if the harasser did not intend it that way.

Protected characteristic

To be harassment, the behavior must target an individual based on a protected characteristic like race, gender, age etc. Harassment can occur between any combination of supervisor-employee, co-workers and third parties like customers or vendors.

Severity and pervasiveness

Isolated minor incidents may not legally amount to harassment. However, severe conduct like sexual assault or persistent degradation can constitute harassment even if not frequent. Courts look at the totality of behaviors.


The context like the nature of the relationship, power dynamics, work/social environment can impact whether behaviors meet the legal threshold for harassment. Vulgar banter between friends may be acceptable while similar joking with a subordinate could be deemed harassment.


Harassment must interfere with work performance, negatively impact the environment or impede equal employment opportunities. Offensive jokes for example can create an intimidating or hostile environment for protected groups.

Factor Description
Unwelcome conduct Behavior must be unwelcome to recipient
Protected characteristic Must target individual based on protected class
Severity and pervasiveness Isolated minor incidents may not constitute harassment but severe or persistent conduct can
Context Nature of relationship and environment impacts whether behavior is deemed harassing
Interference Must interfere with work performance or create intimidating, hostile or offensive environment

Examples of behaviors that typically constitute harassment

While individual circumstances vary, the following types of behaviors will often meet the criteria for unlawful harassment when severe, persistent, unwelcome and targeting a protected class:

  • Sexual harassment like repeated unwelcome sexual invitations, touching, sexually-graphic comments or displaying lewd objects/images.
  • Racial slurs, offensive graffiti/images or jokes targeting a worker’s race/ethnicity.
  • Mocking religious garments or practices or requiring attendance at religious functions against beliefs.
  • Derogatory comments about a person’s disability or excluding them from activities due to disability.
  • Teasing or insults related to a worker’s age, refusing training/benefits due to age stereotyping.
  • Repeated homophobic comments or distributing anti-LGBTQ flyers/emails after requests to stop.
  • Physically blocking or intimidating individuals based on gender or other protected classes.
  • Threatening to fire or deny promotion if sexual demands are not met (quid pro quo harassment).

When behaviors like these target protected groups, are persistent despite objections, and create a hostile environment, they likely constitute unlawful harassment.

Examples of behaviors that typically do NOT meet the harassment threshold

Some behaviors, while still inappropriate or unprofessional, generally do not legally amount to harassment. Examples include:

  • Occasional minor slights or perceived rudeness.
  • General profanity or vulgarity not targeting specific groups.
  • Constructive criticism about legitimate job performance issues.
  • Raising one’s voice or yelling at an individual in frustration.
  • Personality clashes or disputes between co-workers.
  • Isolated offhand comments, jokes or inappropriate remarks.
  • Friendly joking between close colleagues that does not degrade others.
  • Accidental behaviors like bumping into someone or standing too close.

These behaviors may still violate workplace policies or accepted norms of conduct. However, isolated instances that are relatively minor do not meet the legal definition for harassment even if offensive. Harassment requires severe or persistent conduct that creates a discriminatory hostile or intimidating environment.

How to handle potential harassment

If you believe you are experiencing harassment, some recommended steps include:

  • Inform the harasser directly their behavior is unwelcome and must cease immediately.
  • Document all incidents of the unwelcome conduct with details like dates, times, locations, what occurred, and any witnesses.
  • Report the harassment to supervisors, human resources, equity offices or other appropriate organizational channels.
  • Consult anti-harassment/anti-discrimination policies and complaint procedures.
  • File formal internal or external complaints if harassment continues after reporting.
  • Request measures to limit contact with harasser during investigations.
  • Seek legal counsel if harassment involves physical contact or threats.

The key is to not stay silent and report unwelcome, offensive behaviors early before they escalate. Organizations also have a duty to prevent and respond to harassment complaints. Individuals should not tolerate unlawful harassment that creates discriminatory hostile working or learning environments.


Harassment involves unwelcome conduct targeting protected characteristics like race, gender, age or disability that has the effect of violating a person’s dignity or creating an intimidating environment. Key factors like severity, persistence, power dynamics and context determine legally problematic behaviors. While isolated minor incidents may be inappropriate, they do not necessarily constitute harassment. However, severe or pervasive behaviors like sexual advances, offensive slurs or insults, exclusion or threats targeted at protected groups can create unlawful harassment if they negatively impact the work or social environment. Understanding your rights, speaking up about unwelcome behaviors early and utilizing harassment policies are vital to prevent and eliminate illegal harassment.