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Harassment, which exists in many forms with different names, is most basically offensive behavior directed at a person, place, or entity. Most frequently, the target or victim of harassment defines or names the particular form of offensive behavior. Among the more common types of harassment are racial profiling, bullying, sexual harassment, hate crimes, and hazing. Regardless of the demographic or other characteristic of the victim, the goal of the harassment is to intimidate, exert power, or impose control over a victim.
The distinction between harassment and other forms of aggressive communication that are legal is based on societal and community standards. In societies that devalue free speech and open communication—in particular, disagreement with the government or other official personnel—harassment is often very broadly defined as written or verbal communications that are not sanctioned by an official governing body or that express open disagreement with the government.
In contrast, in societies where free speech is encouraged, harassment is typically defined as speech or communication that does not meet normal standards of accuracy or appropriateness, and is directed at a target who perceives the communication as disturbing, disruptive of occupational, educational, or interpersonal functioning, or injurious to reputation, position, or authority. That is to say, when brief and not overly frequent communications express concerns that validly correspond to errors or issues, then harassment is typically not present. Conversely, the greater the duration and frequency of communications and the smaller the validity of the claim, the greater is the likelihood that harassment is present.
These relatively complex definitions highlight the difficulty of identifying what meets the legal definition of harassment. For example, a communication that is perceived as harassment by its receiver may not have been sent for that purpose. Similarly, lengthy, frequent, but accurate communications directed at a person, place, or entity (as with political criticism) may or may not rise to the legal threshold of harassment. Nonetheless, despite these conceptual difficulties, the essential definition of harassment remains valid: It is an unwelcomed and unwanted verbal or nonverbal communication that produces an adverse consequence or negatively affects the emotional, cognitive, or behavioral functioning of one or more victims.
Sexual harassment in the workplace is a form of unwelcomed communication familiar to many individuals in the United States. Victims are frequently expected to accept harassment without complaint in exchange for promotions, raises, or continued employment. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission defines sexual harassment as unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature that explicitly or implicitly affects an individual’s employment, unreasonably interferes with an individual’s work performance, or creates an intimidating, hostile, or offensive work environment. Victimization by workplace harassment has been correlated with greater inefficiency, lowered productivity, and higher rates of absences.
Racial harassment is also a common form of unwelcome and harmful communication. Victims of ethnic or racial harassment, a specific form of racism, can experience negative health outcomes, including high blood pressure, elevated hostility, and frequent somatic complaints. Researchers have found that individuals experiencing racial or ethnic harassment are twice as likely to be daily tobacco users than those with no reported harassment experiences (Bennett et al 2005). Adjusting for age, harassed individuals are 70 percent more likely to report daily tobacco use in the past thirty days. It is beginning to be recognized that racial and ethnic harassment may be an important factor in explaining tobacco use among young African Americans. Those who perceive greater racial/ethnic harassment may also be at greater risk for affective disturbance and pathological cardiovascular reactivity (Bennett et al 2003; Merritt et al 2006). Continuous harassment can lead to persisting complications, including excessive self-blame, lowered mood, reexperience of the unwelcomed event, and generally increased anxiety.
Some forms of harassment are more socially acceptable than others. Because sexual harassment and hate crimes are illegal, there is an implied social agreement that these behaviors are wrong. In other instances, such as harassment of the obese, guidelines for acceptable behavior are much less clear and the prevalence of unwelcomed communications, both subtle and overt, is thought to be high.
Less recognized forms of harassment are also present. For example, a recent content analysis of prime-time television found that depictions of explicit and implicit sexual harassment of women are frequent (Grauerholz and King 1997). Incidents involving quid-pro-quo harassment were numerous. More than 80 percent of television shows in prime time contained at least one incident of sexual harassment not labeled as such.
Recently, behavioral scientists have begun to examine the effectiveness of training programs used to enhance the listening and helping skills of sexual harassment contact persons in the workplace (see Blaxall, Parsonson, and Robertson 1993). The majority of these studies have found that teaching designated and appropriate individuals in the workplace to respond appropriately to complaints of harassment, to recognize harassment’s warning
signs, and to respond empathetically to victims and firmly but fairly to perpetrators can help decrease sexual harassment and reduce its long-term consequences. Despite these encouraging indications, the most important mechanisms for the management of harassment inside and outside of the workplace appear to be laws, rules, regulations, and education.
- Bennett, Gary G., Marcellus M. Merritt, Christopher L. Edwards, and John J. Sollers III. 2003. Perceived Racism and Affective Responses to Ambiguous Interpersonal Interactions among African American Men. American Behavioral Scientist 47 (7): 963–976.
- Bennett, Gary G., Kathleen Yaus Wolin, Elwood L. Robinson, Sherrye Fowler, and Christopher L. Edwards. 2005. Perceived Racial/Ethnic Harassment and Tobacco Use among African American Young Adults. American Journal of Public Health 95 (2): 238–240.
- Blaxall, Michelle C., Barry S. Parsonson, and Neville R. Robertson. 1993. The Development and Evaluation of a Sexual Harassment Contact Person Training Package. Behavior Modification 17 (2): 148–163.
- Grauerholz, Elizabeth, and Amy King. 1997. Prime Time Sexual Harassment. Violence Against Women 3 (2): 129–148.
- Merritt, Marcellus M., Gary G. Bennett, Redford B. Williams, et al. 2006. Perceived Racism and Cardiovascular Reactivity and Recovery to Personally-Relevant Stress. Health Psychology 25 (3): 364–369.
- Priebe, S., K. Bolze, and H. Rudolf. 1994. Persisting Psychological Disorders following Harassment Because of an Application to Leave the GDR. Fortschritte der NeurologiePsychiatrie 62 (11): 433–437.
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