How to navigate workplace harassment for small business

8 min read
Leighton Burley

Workplace harassment is caused by employers and employees alike in many working environments.

Often, harassment is so subtle that it goes unnoticed by even the most experienced HR departments.

And with so many forms of workplace harassment to think about, you might need help navigating how to prevent them from happening in your place of employment.

In this article, we’ll explore the various types of workplace harassment that can occur and how to protect yourself (and your co-workers) from any unwanted harassment in the workplace.

We'll also review what workplace harassment looks like and what you can do to be proactive about it.

Related: Why mental health in the workplace matters

6 types of workplace harassment

Man scolding woman in workplace environment

Let’s start by discussing the most common forms of workplace harassment, as well as some more subtle forms of harassment below.

Discriminatory harassment

One of the most noticeable forms of workplace harassment is discriminatory harassment. This form of harassment includes bullying an individual because of who they are, what they believe, how they perceive the world or their physical traits.

Some of the most common forms of discriminatory harassment include:

  • Racial harassment: The act of bullying someone for their skin colour, cultural traditions, country of origin or ancestry. This can occur through racial slurs, intolerance of differences, showing disgust or degrading jokes about race.
  • Gender-based harassment: The act of treating someone as inferior for the position they hold, due to their gender. Examples of gender-based harassment could include a male being mocked for being a nurse, which is typically thought to be a female role. It could also include a female being overlooked for promotion, due to negative gender stereotypes.
  • Religious harassment: The act of bullying someone for their religious beliefs, which may not be the religious view that’s considered to be ‘normal.’ Religious harassment can occur through jokes, degrading comments, intolerance of the different beliefs of the religion or even pressure to convert to another religion.
  • Disability-based harassment: The act of bullying or mistreating those who have a disability. This could include verbal harassment, patronizing comments or even refusal to adequately accommodate disabled persons.

While these are the most common forms of discriminatory harassment, they may not be readily noticeable and may occur subtly.

Personal harassment

This is a form of workplace harassment that occurs quite often. This is because personal harassment isn’t illegal like discriminatory harassment, so it’s much easier to get away with.

While personal harassment is often overlooked, it’s easy to spot because it’s the most basic form of bullying. It often appears in the form of:

  • Hurtful comments
  • Offensive jokes
  • Public humiliation
  • Critical remarks
  • Intimidation tactics
  • Excluding someone from social events after work

Remember to always strive for inclusivity and create a work environment that feels safe and enjoyable for everyone on your team.

Physical harassment

Physical harassment, which is often referred to as workplace violence, is much easier to spot.

This type of harassment is more traumatizing for those involved since it typically shows up in the form of physical altercations.

Examples of physical harassment could include:

  • Intimidating body language
  • Threats with the intent to cause harm
  • Physically attacking another person
  • Shaking a fist in another person's face
  • Throwing objects as an intimidation tactic

In some industries and workplaces, physical harassment can be a blurred line if employees are used to shoving each other around or play wrestling.

To avoid any confusion, you should enforce a strict policy that defines what form of physicality is appropriate in the workplace.

Power harassment

Power harassment is a common form of workplace harassment and is a sign of poor management within the workplace. This form of harassment comes from toxic owners or managers who will belittle or treat their employees poorly to get what they want.

This type of harassment comes in forms such as:

  • Giving excessive work with tight deadlines
  • Requiring an employee to do jobs far below their abilities as a form of punishment
  • Being overly critical of someone's work without offering to help them learn how to do it better
  • Intruding into someone's personal life by making them work overtime when they know the employee has prior commitments

The harasser in this form always has a higher ranking in the power hierarchy of the company. They often view their victims as ‘weak’ and prey on employees that they think won’t have the courage to stand up for themselves.

Psychological harassment

This occurs when an employer or coworker knowingly impacts the psychological health of another person in a negative way. A victim of psychological harassment will typically feel worthless and belittled on a professional and/or personal level.

Person seperated from group wearing a cardboard sad face over their head

It can be damaging to one’s health and mental well-being to undergo psychological harassment on a daily basis. So, it’s important to identify and remove any forms of psychological harassment before they go too far.

This form of harassment includes:

  • Isolating a worker
  • Belittling or undervaluing a worker's ideas and contributions
  • Spreading rumours
  • Discrediting one's professional reputation

It may even appear when one employee is being critical of what another person has to say while brainstorming ideas. Ensure you offer a safe space for people to contribute ideas — free from harsh judgement or unproductive critiques.

Sexual harassment

Sexual harassment is one of the most well-known forms of harassment, but it’s usually very subtle and secretive. This type of harassment shows up as any form of unwanted sexual advances made in the workplace between two persons.

This could include:

  • Sexual comments
  • Flirting
  • Inappropriately touching another person
  • Posting sexual videos or photos of another person
  • Invading the personal space of another person with sexual intent

There is also another form of sexual harassment known as quid pro quo, which is a Latin term that means “This for That.” It's often used to blackmail employees into sexual acts in exchange for promotions or job security.

Related: Worker's compensation in Canada: what employers need to know

Impacts of COVID-19 on workplace harassment

The COVID-19 pandemic impacted everyone around the world. It changed many things about our day-to-day life, and even how we function in the workplace. Almost every workplace changed its policies on how they operate to reduce the spread of COVID-19.

The change in workplace functions also changed how workplace harassment took place.

Many workers began working from home, which shifted harassment behaviours to a virtual environment.

And while employees weren’t likely to experience physical harassment or physical altercations virtually, it was easier for them to experience the following:

  • Verbal harassment
  • Psychological harassment
  • Sexual harassment
  • Discriminatory harassment

It also allowed a newer form of online harassment, known as cyberbullying.

Cyberbullying is easy to get away with when it comes to remote work. The harasser can use private phone calls or video calls as a method to communicate with their victims.

This makes it much easier to bully people without other coworkers or an HR department finding out. It's also harder to prove what occurred during an incident because private online work meetings aren’t often recorded.

Related: Managing remote teams is easier with Microsoft Teams

How to reduce harassment in the workplace

White board with words "stop bullying start empathy" written in black marker

To reduce workplace harassment, you need to make changes from the top down. You can’t expect your employees to follow policies about workplace harassment when the managers are the ones that are the source of the problem.

Here are some of the ways you can reduce workplace harassment:

1. Create a strict policy on workplace harassment

If you don’t have a zero-tolerance harassment policy for your workplace, then you need to start creating one (find a sample here). Make sure you’re strict about what you allow in the workplace and review this policy with all staff members and new hires. Ensure that everyone on your team understands the expectations you set for them.

2. Train your staff to identify harassment in the workplace

One of the best ways to reduce workplace harassment is by educating your staff members to recognize the signs and show them how to report it. Ensure they understand:

  • What to look for
  • How to identify workplace harassment
  • What to do when it occurs

3. Have an accountability and complaint program

It’s much easier to reduce workplace harassment when staff members can easily voice their concerns. This will help deter harassers from feeling comfortable enough to bully other employees whenever they please.

Try to create a complaint process where employees can discreetly report workplace harassment, then aim to resolve complaints quickly.

4. Stay up to date with your harassment policies and training

After you’ve created a zero-tolerance policy, and you train your employees to identify harassment in the workplace, you should always stay up to date on what workplace harassment looks like — this includes updating your policies accordingly.

Canadian employers in a federally regulated company should note the special requirements on how to handle harassment in the workplace. Additionally, you’re required to adhere to all workplace harassment requirements set forth by the Canadian Government.


Workplace harassment comes in various forms. Some forms are easier to spot than others, but all of them create a toxic work environment. It can also be very damaging for victims of workplace harassment, since it affects their morale and psyche.

As employers, it’s important to reduce workplace harassment through educational training. You’ll also want to create a process for reporting and dealind with those who are harassing others in the workplace to hold them accountable.