Personal Harassment On The Rise

Just when you thought enough awareness about workplace discrimination, hostile behaviour and other forms of harassment would be leading to a decrease in these things, a study finds these are on the rise.

A recent, groundbreaking study in the Journal of Applied Psychology found that verbal aggression, exclusion, bullying, and incivility are becoming more frequent in today’s workplaces.

Researchers Jana Raver at Queen’s University and Lisa Nishii at Cornell University found that along with harassment on the basis of race, gender, religion, national origin, sexual orientation and the like, there is evidence that it also comes in the form of personal or psychological harassment.

The researchers studied how ethnic harassment (targeting particular ethnic groups), gender harassment (crude, offensive behaviours conveying sexist attitudes) combined with generalized workplace harassment to create particularly noxious outcomes for staff targeted.

They discovered that while staff who experience ethnic or gender harassment often cope with these experiences by discounting it as prejudiced, it is harder for targets of personal harassment to do the same.  This is due to the ambiguous nature of the harassment.  Personal harassment is subtle and usually includes a hidden agenda.  Not knowing why someone is targeting you can cause increased stress, according to the researchers.  If you are targeted because you are black or a woman, the strain is harmful and when the reason is ambiguous or unidentifiable, the tendency to continually ask oneself “why”, is also very damaging.

In addition, it is illegal to discriminate based on race or gender, but it is not illegal to personally harass staff.  Coping with abuse can be facilitated by knowing why it is happening and that it is illegal.  The ambiguity that comes with handling situations where you don’t know why you are being treated badly, unclear as to whether it is allowed or not, and overwhelmed with thoughts of “why me”, can cause strain.  Not knowing how to proceed or wondering whether you really are the target of harassment adds to stress.

So how can you tell you are being targeted for personal harassment?

The researchers identify a number of experiences that indicate that you are the target of personal harassment:


If you experience being belittled in front of others or are made to look bad, you are being humiliated and your dignity is being assailed.  Being interrupted or cut off while speaking, being sworn at are signs of abuse at work. If co-workers are sabotaging your work, undermining your efforts or being uncooperative, they are trying to make you look unprofessional or incompetent at work.


You are the target of gossip if people spread rumours about you or fail to correct false information circulating in the workplace.  If co-workers or bosses tell others about negative behaviours, traits or characteristics they perceive about you, or try to get you in trouble by “reporting” you or “memo-ing” you, you are being harassed. In some cases, it is hard to know if this is harassment or allowable supervisory practice. The best way to tell is to identify if the agenda is your improved work performance or to embarrass or catch you out.


Being given the silent treatment, or noticing that others are avoiding you constitutes harassment, along with withholding supplies or equipment you need to do your job. If co-workers or bosses withhold information, don’t invite you to meetings you should be in on, or shun or ignore you, you are being targeted for harassment.


Being insulted, personally attacked, treated sarcastically, and the like, constitute contemptuous treatment.  If people roll their eyes, sigh loudly when you speak, make gestures that imply you are stupid, or worth dismissing, they are harassing.


If you have been physically assaulted, had things thrown at you, or in your direction, had your property damaged or had someone “get in your face”, you are being targeted for personal harassment.  The use of hostile body language, fist pounding, threats, swearing or yelling at you constitutes harassment.

Being the target of ethnic, gender or personal harassment is extremely taxing.  Staff who suffer these forms of harassment experience anxiety, depression and a variety of physical symptoms such as headaches, back ache, gastrointestinal problems and neck strain. Organizations that tolerate harassment of all forms engender decreased commitment, performance and job satisfaction. They encourage higher turnover. Companies in which there are hierarchies based on favouritism, competitive climates and those pre-occupied by self interest tend to breed incivility, bullying and harassment.

Organizations that intervene on harassment, create inclusive climates, adopt a culture of trust and make it safe for people to speak up, avoid the costs associated with harassment.

Dr. Jennifer Newman and Dr. Darryl Grigg are registered psychologists and directors of Newman & Grigg Psychological and Consulting Services Ltd., a Vancouver-based corporate training and development partnership.  Identifying information in cases cited has been changed to protect confidentiality.  They can be contacted at:

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