When is “Harassment” NOT Harassment?

Understanding the definitions of a Hostile Work Environment and Workplace Harassment

HARASSMENT means different things in different settings to different people. People will often say they’re being harassed when they’re actually being pestered or bothered. At work, harassment has a specific legal meaning. It is recommended that those in the workplace, especially supervisors, reserve the word “harassment” for conduct that meets the specific legal definition. Here’s the definition: 

Unwelcome conduct + bad behavior based on a protected class = Harassment

True conduct labeled “harassment” must be both unwelcome and based on a protected class—otherwise, the offending employee is not “harassing” in HR terms.

Here are the most common types of workplace harassment:

Verbal Sexual Personal Discriminatory Cyberbullying
Physical Quid Pro Quo Psychological Retaliation 3rd Party

Even if the offending employee is harassing, the conduct may not be necessarily unlawful. Harassment only becomes unlawful when tolerating this behavior is a condition of continued employment; or the harassment is so severe, or pervasive, that a reasonable person would find it hostile, intimidating, or abusive, and interferes with the employee’s ability to perform his/her job.


Many employees believe that a lousy boss, a rude co-worker, or an unpleasant workplace constitutes what is known as a hostile work environment. A bad boss contributes to a poor workplace. A lack of perks is irritating. A loud coworker is obnoxious. Feeling overworked, underpaid, and unhappy in one’s job does not constitute a hostile work environment. Treating staff and co-workers badly makes poor business sense and will drive away good employees, but it’s not illegal. For a work environment to be defined as legally hostile, it needs to go beyond minor inconveniences, casual joking, and general rudeness.

A hostile workplace describes a workplace where unlawful harassment that is severe or pervasive takes place. A hostile work environment is created by a boss or coworker whose actions, communication, or behavior make doing a job impossible. For a workplace to be hostile, specific legal criteria must be met.

The definition according to the State of Oregon Bureau of Labor and Industry [BOLI]: “Any unwelcome verbal or physical conduct that is sufficiently severe or pervasive to have the purpose or effect of unreasonably interfering with work performance or creating an intimidating, hostile, or offensive working environment.”

An employee claiming hostile work environment harassment will need to show that the conduct complained about was severe or pervasive enough to alter the conditions of employment and create a hostile or abusive work environment. In deciding if harassment is sufficiently severe or pervasive to create a hostile work environment, courts will look at all the circumstances, such as:

The nature of the conduct    The severity of the conduct Whether the conduct was physically threatening or humiliating or a mere offensive utterance
The frequency of the conduct Context of the conduct Whether the conduct unreasonably interferes with an employee’s work performance

If the above equations are not complete, your employee may have an unpleasant workplace, doesn’t like the boss, works in an office fraught with tension, has a supervisor who micromanages too much, or the company workplace is an unmitigated circus of crazy behaviors—but legally, their complaint  won’t constitute as a hostile work environment.

Let the HR Experts at Cardinal Services Help

If you are still confused or have questions about harassment behavior, harassment laws, or how to set and implement workplace policies to prevent this behavior- Cardinal Services can help. Our HR Specialists are trained in helping businesses set policies, and create or update company handbooks that cover this HR issue. And we are available to train managers and consult should a conflict arise. Give us a call at (800) 342-4742 and ask to speak to an HR Specialist today!