Social Wellness: Combating Harassment in the Workplace | EAPA-SA

Behaviour that makes an employee feel intimidated or offended is classified as workplace harassment. Harassment in the workplace is something real that happens on a daily basis. It can take many forms and it is important to learn how to recognise its signs as with it comes severe consequences for your employees’ mental health. Employers need to be keenly aware of any harassment that takes place in an in-person or remote workplace and find ways in which to discourage and deal with it.

Discrimination of any kind can make your employees’ work life difficult to cope with and make going to work every day a challenge. The sole purpose of a workplace harasser is to make their victims feel unsafe and uncomfortable. Sexual harassment, particularly, can make victims feel physically, emotionally, and psychologically unsafe. Here is some insight into the various types of workplace harassment. These can take place in-person or online. 

“Discrimination of any kind can make your employees’ work life difficult to cope with and make going to work every day a challenge.”

Discriminatory Harassment

To put discriminatory harassment into perspective: The Promotion of Equality and Prevention of Unfair Discrimination Act, 2000 (PEPUDA or the Equality Act, Act No. 4 of 2000) is a comprehensive South African anti-discrimination law. It prohibits unfair discrimination by the government and by private organisations and individuals and forbids hate speech and harassment. The act specifically lists race, gender, sex, pregnancy, family responsibility or status, marital status, ethnic or social origin, HIV/AIDS status, colour, sexual orientation, age, disability, religion, conscience, belief, culture, language and birth as “prohibited grounds” for discrimination.

In the case of discriminatory harassment, the bully is harassing the victim, at least in part, because they are a member of a protected class. Discriminatory harassment manifests itself in the use of in hurtful nicknames, slurs, jokes, negative stereotyping or threatening or intimidating acts. Here are six categories of discriminatory harassment: 

  • Racial Harassment

A victim may experience racial harassment because of their race, skin colour, ancestry, origin country or citizenship. Even perceived attributes of a certain ethnicity (curly hair, accents, customs, beliefs or clothing) may be the cause. Racial harassment often manifests as:

  • Racial slurs
  • Racial insults
  • Racial jokes
  • Degrading comments
  • Disgust
  • Intolerance of differences

  • Gender harassment

Gender-based harassment is discriminatory behaviour towards a person based on their gender.

Negative gender stereotypes about how men and women should act, or do act, are often the centre of the harassment. For examples:

  • A male nurse faces harassment for having what is perceived as a woman’s job
  • A female banker hits the glass ceiling and is overlooked for promotion for not being “leader material”
  • A male colleague shows colleagues material (such as video clips or memes) that is degrading to women

  • Religious harassment

Religious harassment is often aligned with racial harassment but it hones in specifically on the victim’s religious beliefs. An individual with a religion that differs from the “norm” of the organisation (or the organisation’s location, country-wise) may face workplace harassment or intolerance in a variety of ways:

  • Intolerance toward religious holidays | religious traditions | religious customs
  • Cruel religious jokes
  • Degrading stereotypical comments
  • Pressure to convert to another religion

  • Disability-based harassment

A person with a disability may experience harassment in the form of harmful teasing, patronising comments, isolation or a refusal to reasonably accommodate them. Disability-based harassment is a category of workplace harassment that is directed towards individuals who:

  • suffer from a disability themselves,
  • are acquainted with a disabled person or people,
  • use disability services, such as sick leave or workers’ compensation.


  • Sexual orientation-based harassment

Sexual orientation-based harassment happens when victims face harassment because their sexual orientation is different from those around them. People of any sexual orientation, especially from with the LGBTQI+ community, may experience this form of harassment depending on their line of work. For example, a homosexual man may face harassment on a construction site whereas a heterosexual man may be teased for working in a gay night club.


  • Age-based harassment

A person facing age-based harassment may be bullied simply because of their age and the stereotypes that come with it. Unfortunately, this harassment is sometimes an attempt to wrongfully push the individual into early retirement. Age-based harassment can take the form of being:

  • teased and insulted
  • left out of activities or meetings
  • overlooked for skills training or promotion
  • unfairly criticised 

Verbal Harassment

Verbal abuse is a type of psychological or mental abuse that involves the use of oral, gestured, and written language directed to a victim. Verbal abuse can include the act of harassing, labeling, insulting, scolding, rebuking or excessive yelling towards an individual. Verbal harassment can be the result of personality conflicts between colleagues in the workplace that have escalated beyond minor, sporadic altercations. For this reason, a lot of verbal harassment can be particularly damaging since it goes unnoticed for a lengthy period and can remain unresolved. Unlike discriminatory types of harassment, verbal abuse is typically not illegal unless it is aimed at a protected class of person.

“Verbal abuse is a type of psychological or mental abuse that involves the use of oral, gestured, and written language directed to a victim.”

“Psychological harassment, or emotional / mental bullying, includes unwarranted hostile behaviour, verbal threats, intimidating and aggressive actions made toward a victim.”

Psychological Harassment

Psychological harassment, or emotional / mental bullying, includes unwarranted hostile behaviour, verbal threats, intimidating and aggressive actions made toward a victim. These could be overt or happen subtly, without being witnessed. This type of psychological abuse can also include sexual or other types of harassment and often leave individuals feeling ashamed or fearful of the person initiating these actions. Incidents such as these tend to leave victims with deep emotional wounds and are usually the source of intense stress and depression.

Victims of psychological harassment often feel put down and belittled on a personal or professional level, or both. The damage to a victim’s psychological well-being often creates a domino effect, also impacting their physical health, social life and work life. Examples of psychological harassment can manifest in

  • isolating them or denying the victim’s presence
  • belittling or trivializing the victim’s thoughts
  • discrediting or spreading rumours about the victim
  • opposing or challenging everything the victim say

Sexual Harassment 

Sexual harassment is, as it sounds –  harassment that is sexual in nature that generally includes unwanted sexual advances, conduct or behaviour. Sexual harassment in the workplace is a form of unlawful discrimination and is taken seriously by the courts.

Other types of harassment may take some time and increasing severity to create a hostile work environment for the victim, whereas sexual harassment typically brings about discomfort and negatively impacts the victims’ life immediately. Examples of sexual harassment include:

  • Sexual comments, jokes, questions
  • Inappropriate touching
  • Sharing sexual photos, videos or memes (pornography)
  • Inappropriate sexual gestures
  • Invading a person’s personal space in a sexual way


Other Categories of Harassment

Harassment can take many other forms:

  • Bullying – including critical remarks and social exclusion
  • Workplace violence – often these are physical assaults on public-facing staff
  • Abuse of power – placing excessive or demeaning demands
  • Cyberbullying – sharing gossip and humiliating information or direct messaging
  • Retaliation – revenge in response to a perceived slight, including a complaint
  • Third-party harassment – bullying from people outside of your organisation


A 7-Step Approach to stopping workplace harassment

Organisations need to take harassment very seriously and act decisively to tackle incidents in the workplace. Here are seven recommended steps to alleviating harassment among employees:

  1. Develop effective anti-harassment policy and procedures
  2. Continually engage and communicate with your employees, one-to-one and in groups
  3. Continually assess and then mitigate risks in your workplace
  4. Put effective harassment reporting systems in place
  5. Deliver anti-harassment, equality and diversity training
  6. Ensure management knows what to do when a complaint is made
  7. Know what to do if dealing with sexual harassment and third parties


What should an Anti-harassment Policy include?

You can build your anti-harassment policy into your employee handbook or make it a separate organisational policy for employees to read and sign – or attest to online. The policy should include:

  • An explanation of how workers should make a complaint
  • Multiple reporting channels for people to report harassment – so that they do not need to report incidents to the perpetrator or superior who may not be objective
  • A range of approaches for dealing with harassment
  • Clearly stated and appropriate consequences for harassment or victimisation
  • A clear statement that your organisation does not tolerate victimisation or retaliation against complainants
  • Information about support and advice services for complainants and alleged harassers, including employee assistance programmes (EAPs), internal contact points, local and national support organisations.

Safe working environments are the result of well-monitored employees and consistently practiced policies within the workplace. These protect an organisation from potential liability and create a safe, inclusive environment that helps boost morale and improve productivity.