Harassment is generally defined as a repeated pattern of unnecessary and unwanted behaviors or contact from someone. Although the law does not prohibit simple teasing, offhand comments, or minor, isolated events, harassment can become illegal when it is so frequent or severe that it creates a hostile environment. The specific legal definition of harassment differs depending on where you live. Check with your local court or law enforcement agency for legal definitions specific to your location.
What is Harassment?
Harassment can take on a variety of forms. While this list isn’t exhaustive, you may be a victim of harassment if someone:
- Chronically criticizes you or engages in humiliation, slander, gossip, or makes statements intending to turn friends, coworkers, or classmates against you
- Makes unwelcome sexual advances, touches, gestures, or makes sexual comments about you, often called sexual harassment
- Breaks or destroys objects, engages in self-harm, cruelty to animals, or other people in your sight with the intent to intimidate you
- Involves you in a “playful ritual” that causes distress, such as tormenting you under the guise of a joke or a rite of passage, often called hazing
- Attempts to influence others to act in an unwelcome way towards you or files numerous frivolous legal complaints or police reports against you, often called harassment by proxy
- Turns coworkers against you or mentions that promotions or bonuses will only be for those willing to perform certain inappropriate actions, or uses offensive or demeaning language in reference to a specific group of people, often called workplace harassment
- Makes comments that make you feel uncomfortable or threatened while you are in public places, like using suggestive language or catcalls, often called street harassment
If you have been harassed, you may:
- Feel depressed, hopeless, angry, anxious, irritable, on-edge, and hypervigilant
- Feel a desire to hurt oneself or have suicidal thoughts and actions
- Miss work or school for fear of seeing the person harassing you
- Be fearful of what harassment may happen next
- Feel vulnerable and unsafe in public places and/or at work
- Change your normal or preferred social and online habits
What Can I Do?
Harassment can lead to an environment that becomes uncomfortable for the victim. Harassment that goes ignored also has the potential to possibly turn into a more serious crime, like stalking or assault. While there is no universal set of steps that will work for everyone, these actions may help your environment feel safer:
- Call 911 for Immediate Assistance – You know yourself and your situation better than anyone. Trust your instincts and call for help if you feel you are in danger.
- Document Every Incident – Make a log of encounters you may have and save all messages, emails, and call history if you are being harassed by phone, email, or social media.
- Create a Safety Plan – Develop a safety plan for all situations where you may encounter the harasser and/or harassing behavior. Enlist the help of a trusted friend or coworker that will stay close in the presence of the person harassing you. This may prevent the harassment or provide you with a witness to the behavior.
- Plan Ahead – Try to minimize contact with the person harassing you, but be prepared for interaction. Think of what you will say and do ahead of time. Always remember you have the right to be safe and the harassment is not your fault.
- Report the Harassment – Harassment that includes physical or sexual harm, or damage to property may be against the law, so consider reporting the harassment to the police, your school administration, your employer’s human resources department and/or Equal Employment Opportunity Commission [EEOC]. For reports of harassment in the workplace, you have 180 days to report to the EEOC, however this timeframe may be extended by state law. Federal employees have 45 days to contact the EEOC.
- Obtain a Protective Order – Consider filing for a protective order if the harassing behavior is disrupting your life or is dangerous. Protective orders are issued differently by each state, so be sure to contact your local courts to determine what you’ll need to file the order and what type of order you can file for based on the evidence and your particular situation.
Contact the VictimConnect Resource Center by phone at 1.855.484.2846 or by chat for more information or assistance in locating services that can help if you are experiencing harassment.
Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC): Facts provides information on different types of harassment and discrimination.
EEOC: Statutes offers legal information on what the EEOC covers concerning harassment and discrimination based on sexuality, age, disability, and other factors.
EEOC: Prohibited Policies and Practices outlines what employers can and cannot require of you in the workplace.
Fair Employment Protection Act (FEPA) provides a section-by-section breakdown of the FEPA and protections provided to workers.
Civil Rights Center provides information on workplace harassment, including hostile work environments, quid-pro-quo situations, and how to file a complaint with the EEOC.
Workplace Bullying Institute offers information on where to start if you are a victim of workplace harassment, including how to take care of yourself, approaching the administration with the problem, and filing complaints.
Stop Street Harassment gives information on this under-researched topic, as well as steps to take to protect yourself from the behavior.
Hollaback! discusses debunked myths about street harassment and provides additional resources and apps to use.
If you are feeling overwhelmed and hopeless, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline provides resources for finding someone to talk to. It also offers 24/7 phone and chat support if you need help immediately.