How to Deal With Harassment at Work

No matter how you’re being harrassed on the job, these tips will help you figure out how to deal with harrassment at work. I wrote this for a reader who is being harrassed by her coworker.

dealing with harrassment at workTo learn more about dealing with difficult coworkers, read Dealing with People You Can’t Stand: How to Bring Out the Best in People at Their Worst. This book tells you what to say and how to say it when you’re facing problems at work.

Here’s what my reader asked: “What tips do you have for dealing with sexual harassment at work?” asks Tana on my Dealing With Office Politics article. “I’m being harassed constantly by one of my coworkers, and I’m sick of it. What can I do?”

That’s a difficult type of harassment to deal with, depending on who and how much of a bully the harasser is! The following career tips apply to all types of workplace harassment — including dealing with difficult coworkers — and can be used to fight workplace discrimination.

To learn more about dealing with difficult coworkers, read Dealing with People You Can’t Stand: How to Bring Out the Best in People at Their Worst. This book tells you what to say and how to say it when you’re facing problems at work.

And here are a few tips for coping with a coworker who is harassing you…

How to Deal With Harassment at Work

Will a promotion save you from those coworkers? Read Why Doing a Good Job Won’t Get You Ahead at Work.

1. Consider different ways to deal with workplace harassment

Before you read these tips and think, “But that won’t work because…”, stop for a moment. Open your mind to the possibility that one of these tips might work if you explored it a bit further…and any tip can lead to an effective way to create a better work environment! Achieving your goals – no matter what they are – is about breaking down obstacles and being open to different options.

2. Learn what workplace harassment is

You have the right to go to work without fear, trepidation, or reluctance! Harassment at work is about experiencing repeated, unwelcome, intimidating, threatening, or humiliating behavior. It includes verbal insults, offensive emails or phone messages, withholding of information, unjustified criticism, spreading gossip, and discrimination. Workplace harassment is usually obvious…but it’s possible to be harassed and not even realize it.

If you have a learning disability, read How to Deal With Adult Dyslexia at Work.

3. Gain insight into your interaction with difficult coworkers

Sometimes our personalities, insecurities, fears, and past experiences affect how we define and deal with harassment at work. For instance, if we didn’t learn how to stand up to a bullying older brother, we may feel afraid and insecure when it comes to difficult coworkers or harassment. To stop being harassed, you need to figure out what role you’re playing at work. It takes self-awareness, honesty, and insight – but it can help you achieve your career goals.

4. Get evidence of the harassment

Keep all records of how your coworker is treating you. Save those emails, phone messages, and post-it notes. If you’re dealing with face-to-face harassment, then keep a written record of times, dates, places, and behaviors and words. Ask a coworker to witness the incidences of harassment – get him or her to sign your written record.

5. Look into your company’s harassment policies

Many organizations have formal harassment and discrimination procedures to follow; the more you know about those policies, the better. Talk to someone in the Human Resources Department. Review the Employee Code of Conduct handbook. Your company’s policies and standards may not solve your problems at work (some office manuals are just for show – and some office managers may not even be aware of all the company’s policies), but it’s worthwhile to be aware of the formal procedures.

6. Directly confront the difficult coworker

How to Deal With Harassment at Work

How to Deal With Harassment at Work

Whether you can or should confront a coworker who is harassing you depends on your situation. Further, how you confront him or her depends on personalities, the work environment, positions held, and the nature of the harassment. You need to find the right approach for your coworker and situation, and I can’t cover every possible harassment here.

7. Express your position clearly, objectively, and calmly

No matter how you decide to deal with workplace harassment, learn the basics of negotiating conflict at work. One way to stop harassment is to be direct and assertive about how the behavior affects you – without complaining, whining, or getting emotional. And, it’s effective to give a consequence. For instance: “When you refer to me as ‘babe’, I don’t feel respected or professional. It makes me think less of you as a colleague, and less of this organization as a whole. If you do it again, I’m taking it a step further, to our boss.” Again, dealing with a coworker who is harassing you depends on so many factors – but directly and rationally approaching someone can be effective.

8. Consult an employment lawyer or organizational psychologist

If you can’t deal with the difficult coworker on your own, get professional help. Many lawyers and psychologists offer free consultations; if your situation is serious (if, for instance, you think you have grounds to sue the company or you’re experiencing several emotional distress), call someone and get support.

9. Polish your resume, and start networking

Sometimes harassment can be stopped in its tracks – especially if it hasn’t been going on long. Other times, it’s better to cut your losses and find a job that better suits your education, experience, and career goals. Maybe this harassment at work isn’t yours to stop…maybe it’s the excuse you need to find a career to match your personality traits or search for the best jobs for people with introverted personality traits. Learn who is hiring in your industry; explore the idea of going back to school, consider relocating to a new city or state. Maybe this difficult coworker is the motivation you need to embark on a whole new stage of life!

I welcome your thoughts on dealing with harassment at work below. I can’t offer advice, but it may help you to share your experience.

“Do not think of knocking out another person’s brains because he differs in opinion from you. It would be as rational to knock yourself on the head because you differ from yourself ten years ago.” Horace Mann

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13 Responses

  1. Anon says:

    I’m dealing with an extremely unique and, to be quite honest, scary situation at work currently. I work for a tiny company (there’s only about 4 of us left) in a small office where we all basically share one room. Obviously, I need to get out of there anyway BUT here’s what’s going on and what I could really really use advice on:

    My boss began bringing his fiance to the office a few months ago. She seemed like a pleasant, normal person at first and I was friendly and inviting (I’m also a woman). It was nice to have another female around! She seemed to be working on her own thing from our office so it didn’t seem weird at first. Then she started asking me very personal questions like who I live with, if I love my boyfriend, why I’m not married, etc. The creepiest part of all this was that she knew my boyfriend’s name without me having to tell her. I guess she’d done some online research.

    I answered these questions with vague but polite responses to try and diffuse the conversation as it was uncomfortable. I noticed she really started to not like me after I’d accidentally walked in on her and my boss making out in his office, even though his door was wide open. This happened about four times, sometimes I’d just be walking past and it would be happening. Then all of a sudden, she didn’t show up at the office for about four months because I guess she got a job somewhere.

    Now, she’s back everyday, like clockwork when I’m there and things have got stranger and stranger. I got a message on Facebook from a fake account ( i know it was her, trust me but no way to prove it to anyone else) telling me what a “failure” and “worthless” person I am. She talks to others about how unimportant I am and no one says anything. She organizes office social events and openly doesn’t invite me. I get messages from her directly instructing me on how to do my job. Note: she does not hold an official title at this company, she’s simply married to my boss. I discovered that she blocked me from all her social media accounts, even though I’ve never seen hers prior to the blocking. She also blocked my boyfriend. No idea how she got his ig username…She sits behind me all day and physically invades my personal space because the printer is on my desk. She seems like a delusional and unpredictable person with a lot of emotional problems and that’s what’s scaring me.

    Today she was looking at a picture of my house on Google Maps.

    I have no idea what I did to this woman to make her hate me so much and don’t know what to do until I can get another job. I can’t go to my boss because that’s her husband. I can’t tell HR about it because we have no HR department. Everyday her obsession seems to take on a new level even though I ignore her and stay out of her way.

    Please help.

  2. Laurie Pawlik-Kienlen says:

    Switching shifts and working different days is an effective way to deal with harrassment at work, especially if you don’t want to quit your job. Talking to a supervisor or boss can also be helpful, depending on how it’s handled from there. Sometimes you need to try different ways to deal with the coworker who is harrassing you, in order to find what works.

  3. Cal says:

    I dated my co worker at a warehouse for 4 months. I have been there three years so far. She has been there for one so far. The relationship didn’t work out, so I let her go. Now she’s obsessed about me and has been doing things to get under my skin. I should point out that she is divorced and with three kids (a son and two daughters). She has been in abusive relationships and seems to have undiagnosed symptoms of BiPolar Disorder. She’s acting all weird at work. EG: after the breakup, she is extra friendly with male co workers now (when she wasn’t that way before we dated) and now takes them with her to buy coffees and doughnuts at lunch in plain sight in front of me. She is friendly and talkative with everybody but me. She has been extra friendly with other female co workers I was close friends with, when she wasn’t before or during our dating and to which she knew I had a better rapport with some of these women than her – so in other words she stole them from me now and even they admitted that she wanted them to only talk to me to see if I had anything to say about her. She stares at me constantly – or at least when I catch it. She used to stop what she was doing and give me a motionless, expressionless and haunting stare when she saw me talk and laugh with other female workers. I even notice her perfume all over the inside of my forklift, yet she’s a bagger – not a driver! It doesn’t stop there: Outside of work, she goes to restaurants and coffee shops I hang out at even though she doesn’t go in – she just drives by – yet there’s a coffee shop of the same name closer to her place. And I see her drive by some other places I’m hanging out at now, which means she follows me. I like my jobs, I like my shifts and staff really. Even the boss, sometimes there’s two of them, are great guys to work for! But this woman “ex” is seriously getting on my nerves and is seriously beginning to annoy me. She is a vindictive, manipulative and ego infested freak. I’m definitely not kidding here. Told one co worker about it and he said she was acting like a psycho. Is he over exaggerating or is he accurate? She’s almost 50 and I thought she was all grown up and mature, but apparently she hasn’t grown up yet and is bent on vengeance. She wants to get even with me, for letting her go, for something she did, by playing these little Cloak and Dagger games on me. What should I do? I don’t want to leave my job. Maybe I should switch shifts or work different days since I only work there part time.

  4. Krys says:

    my boyfriend works for walmart, and theres a young guy, 18 or so, working with him, as cart pushers. we will call him D. My bf received a call addressing him at the front, and he answered it, with the following convo…
    “hey f***t!”
    “e…excuse me? ”
    “We’ve been trying to text you! Me and **** are outside! We’re looking to get some!”
    “..who are you looking for?
    “This is *****, right?” ….

    This guy ALSO just assaulted a 16 year old, a new cart pusher with our store last weekend! even with a report made, the guy, D, is still working there! what do we do?? he should have been fired already, has lots of work harrassment complaints against him, and now his presence and antics off or on work are making everyone uncomfortable! to top it all off, hes a really lazy worker… ugh, its so frustrating, weve already made incident reports and everything….don’t like harassment at work.

  5. jane says:

    Me and my husband have some family issues and he has been threatening he will take the issue to my boss. How to stop it? Can the HR stop him doing that?

  6. Laurie Pawlik-Kienlen says:

    Great question, Car! I had so much to say, I wrote a whole article for you…

    When What You Wear to Work Causes Problems With Your Coworkers

    I welcome your thoughts, even if they’re negative :-)

    All good things,

  7. CAR says:

    I have a situation where I have other female employees (that are much older than I) constantly making comments about the fact that I like to wear heels and skirts to work (all well within proper dress code). There is a huge generational gap at my office and the majority of the people I work with are over 50 (I am 33). There is another female employee that is in her mid 20’s who these same people tend to harass and who make comments to eachother about what she wears (also within our dress code stipulations). We both simply wear more modern/trendy clothes and constantly hear snide comments being said about us. I generally just ignore these individuals, but the other day one printed out our dress code and basically thought I should read it because some people were “offended” by what I was wearing. I completely felt I was dressed appropriately, and being that this person was not my supervisor AND the fact that she would not tell me what aspect of the dress code I was violating when I asked, I was very offended that I was being singled out. This was also a time when my supervisor happened to be out of the office, which is usually when these people strike. I’m just not sure how to address this situation…

  8. Danielle says:

    A male coworker brings me gifts. He also stops by to say hello once a day even though he works in a different department at our large company. There is no need for him to stop by at all. At first he just seemed friendly but now he seems to think we are best buddies. I have a lot to do and I am worried that this is only going to get worse. I don’t want to hurt his feelings but I do want him to leave me alone and stop bothering me.

  9. Laurie Pawlik-Kienlen says:

    Hi Linette,

    I agree with you — the attention your coworker is giving you isn’t flattering, it’s harassment! It’s sad that you’re surrounded by people who believe it’s okay for that kind of behavior to happen at work…and that whole “men will be men” attitude isn’t just annoying, it’s potentially dangerous.

    Would human resources be able to put you in separate work areas? The only way to find out is to ask — even if you don’t think they’ll do anything.

    And, I encourage you to keep track of everything he says and does by writing down dates, times, and actions. That gives you much more credibility than if you went to human resources without specific information. The more specific you are, the more credible you are.

    Also, have you confronted him directly? It might work to say something like, “I don’t like when you do that. Please stop it!” in a loud voice. Don’t be afraid of embarrassing him or yourself — it’s better to draw attention to yourselves than suffer in silence!

    I hope this helps, and hope you let me know how things are going…


  10. linette says:

    i was being harassed by a male coworker i went to management. when questioned by management he pretended to not know what he was doing. he has since stopped sexually harassing me and is now just plain harassing me by trying to bump into me when we cross paths or just trying to stare into my eyes,invading my space and following me around the workplace pretending to be looking for something near the area where i am. there is usually no witnesses this i believe is where his excitement comes from. i am 30 he is 55, all of our female coworkers are 55+ and when i talk to them about it they say i should be flattered and the male coworkers believe i should let him continue to be in my space because he is a man and men will be men. someone told me i should go to human resources but i don’t think they will do anything because most people don’t even notice whats going on so there are no witnesses.the only people aware are he and i and i feel i can’t take it anymore with just his word against mine would human resources be able to put us in seperate work areas.

  11. Laurie Pawlik-Kienlen says:

    Dear flowergal,

    I’m so sorry to hear about your husband being treated that way at work — it definitely sounds like harassment!

    Your husband might want to start polishing his resume and putting out feelers for a new job. It might also be good to contact an employment counselor and an employment lawyer. The counselor can help him think about job opportunities, and the lawyer can help him figure out if a lawsuit is a good idea.

    And, your husband needs to start keeping track of incidents like the one you described. He needs to write down dates, times, places, witnesses, and incidences….the more he keeps track of the harassment he’s experiencing at work, the better position he’ll be in if a lawyer or potential lawsuit is in the cards.

    And finally, I encourage your husband (or you) to call a local employment office, help line, or social services organization that helps people cope with problems at work. I don’t know what resources exist in your area, but most cities and towns have something that could help people dealing with difficult coworkers or toxic bosses.

    I hope this helps, and hope you return to let me know how things are going…

    .-= Laurie Pawlik-Kienlen´s last blog post …Money Skills – Tips for Teaching Financial Literacy to Kids =-.

  12. flowergal says:

    Sorry, forgot to use spell check.

  13. flowergal says:

    I wanted to say thank you for the tips on dealing with harassment at work, & as you said you couldn’t list all forms of harassment. My husband’s supervisor has for some reason taken to harassing him at work & a co-worker has joined in. My husband has talked to his supervisor & talked to the president of the company who assured my husband that he would take care of the matter. Well we thought something would be done about it but after awhile the word came down that if you can’t get along then everyone is going to be out of a job. Not long after that the company sent the human resorses manager to deal with the matter. When the HRM suggested that my husband be put on salary, my husband’s supervisor very strongly declared to the HRM & with in the hearing of the secratary & my husband who the supervisor was not aware was in the hall that maybe if my husband wasn’t so lazy, untrust worthy & secretive. My husband has had to endure this for months now & very often has come home from work & had to go straight to bed because the stress has been over whelming. What do we do when this is allowed to happen?

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