The difference between workplace harassment and discrimination

One of the critical issues that every organization should focus on is creating a safe and inclusive work environment. Central to this mission is understanding the difference between workplace harassment and discrimination.

These two concepts are often addressed interchangeably but have distinct meanings and implications.

What is workplace harassment?

Workplace harassment, in essence, refers to any unwelcome behavior, actions or communication directed towards an individual or a group within a workplace. This behavior often creates a hostile, intimidating or offensive environment, making it difficult for the victim(s) to perform their job effectively. Workplace harassment can manifest in various forms, including verbal harassment, which are:

  • Derogatory comments
  • Insults
  • Slurs
  • Offensive jokes

There’s also physical harassment, which encompasses actions like unwanted touching, intimidation or physical threats. Not to forget sexual harassment, which comprises unwanted sexual advances or requests for sexual favors. It’s also important to mention cyberbullying because, in the digital age, harassment can extend to online platforms, including social media and email.

What is workplace discrimination?

Workplace discrimination is the unjust or prejudicial treatment of individuals or groups based on specific characteristics. It can occur in various facets of employment, including:

  • Hiring
  • Promotions
  • Salary decisions
  • Terminations

Workplace discrimination can manifest in various forms; for instance, when an employee is treated unfairly due to ethnicity or skin color, it constitutes racial discrimination. Additionally, discrimination based on gender involves treating someone unfavorably because of their sex, gender identity or gender expression. Age discrimination also occurs when an employee is unfairly treated due to their age, typically affecting older workers. Not to forget disability discrimination; employers must make reasonable accommodations for employees with disabilities and refrain from discriminatory actions.

Understanding the difference between workplace harassment and discrimination is crucial for employers that want to foster an inclusive working environment and limit their liability, and for employees who are curious about pursuing legal action because they are being unlawfully mistreated.

super lawyers
New York County Lawyers Association
New York City Bar
NELA Advocates for Employee Rights National Employment Lawyers Association
lead counsel lc verified