When You Are Hired: Harassment on the Job

UNH's Career and Professional Success team discusses Harassment on the job and how to protect yourself

As you plan ahead for landing with an organization, the good news is that most organizations by now have formal or informal policies regarding equal employment opportunity (EEO) and harassment in the workplace. Harassment is unwelcome conduct that is based on race, color, religion, sex (including pregnancy), national origin, age (40 or older), disability, or genetic information.  Harassment becomes unlawful where 1) enduring the offensive conduct becomes a condition of continued employment, or 2) the conduct is severe or pervasive enough to create a work environment that a reasonable person would consider intimidating, hostile, or abusive. 

Your Rights

Federal laws regarding harassment protect virtually all private and public employees in the United States and those U.S. based companies functioning internationally.  The only groups of individuals exempt from  are those individuals  in companies with fewer than 15 employees.  Several state laws, known as Fair Employment Practices, also address sexual harassment and the law in their own state as well. 

Who to contactHuman Resources is usually the function in an organization that provides this information and enforces compliance.  Some organizations may have a Diversity/EEO Officer that oversees policies. 


Even when these policies and practices exist in organizations, people – from the CEO on down – are not necessarily informed about policies or practice the correct behavior.  Even if the behavior does not meet the legal hurdle that it is “severe and pervasive,” people vary in their response to these words or behaviors.  


Example:  One employee may be comfortable hearing a co-worker tell an off-color joke while another employee may not be comfortable with it and take offense.   

How to Handle Adverse Situations

Everyone in the workplace deserves respect, and each person needs to notice their feelings and decide whether or not to address unwelcome and offensive behavior.  When employees are recipients of disrespectful or harassing words or actions, there are choices in response:  one can a) ignore it or brush it off; b) talk to someone about it; c) report it; or d) address the person exhibiting the offending behavior directly. 

When employees choose to talk about it  and get support or assistance in assessing the situation, consider the following resources outside and inside the workplace: 

  • trusted partner, family member, friend, or mentor outside of work 

  • The leader if there is a trusting relationship 

  • Human Resources/Diversity/EEO Office (if it exists) when the intent is to report 

  • An EAP or Health Services resource funded by the company 

Reporting Offensive Behavior

If an employee chooses to report offensive behavior, among the most important policies on workplace harassment is no retaliation against the reporter.  This includes when the offender is direct leader/supervisor.  In that case, the employee arrangement should not be affected negatively if reported.  It may take more thought and courage to report inappropriate behavior by a leader.  Be sure to seek advice from a trusted source. 


If one is confident in their ability to communicate directly with the person exhibiting offensive behavior, here is a simple protocol that can be used with the acronymDESI: 


   D = Describe the facts using the “I” voice:  I was uncomfortable when you put your arm around me after today’s meeting. 

   E Explain the impact:  It felt overly familiar instead of professional, and I felt disrespected by a valued colleague. 

   SSuggest a future behavior:  In the future, please honor my personal space and do not touch me. 

   I Inquire and get agreement:  Is this something that you will agree to? 


U.S. Equal Opportunity Commission website: 



DaskalLolly, “10 Tips for Dealing with Workplace Harassment,” Inc. Magazine online: 



(The DESI model comes from a training called Respect at BankBoston in the late 1990’s)