Harassment as a legal term is outside the scope of the information we can provide here. The following information is not meant to act as legal advice or counsel.
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How to react to Intimidation in the workplace

How do you define intimidation in the workplace?

If you feel that you are being harassed in the workplace but are not sure what categories of behavior you should report, define what is happening and what category of harassment or intimidation the behavior fits:

Physical Intimidation

You have every right to expect that you not be physically threatened in the work place. This includes all forms of physical intimidation, but the most serious of these, which is usually cause for immediate action by an employer, is


  • violent contact
    • striking, shoving, kicking, etc
  • This becomes sexual harassment if it includes
    • kissing,
    • forceful touching/groping,
    • or other forms of physical sexual conduct including rape.

Also in the category of violent physical contact are physical threats that result in

  • misdirected contact
    • items thrown or broken fall into this category.

All forms of Physical Violence should be reported immediately and swift action taken by employers.

Physical intimidation also includes

  • encroachment into your physical space (usually defined as approximately three feet away from you) in a manner that is threatening, even without contact.
  • purposeful acts designed to make your physical environment uncomfortable.

    An example of this might be defective or inadequate equipment or facilities when adequate equipment or facilities are or should be available and their denial appears to be punitive.

Also in the category of physical intimidation is Verbal Intimidation. This can include

  • shouting, especially from a near distance;
  • use of cursing or other abusive language;
  • use of demeaning language.

    This form of intimidation may also include repeated telling of insulting or demeaning jokes, references to your person, or physical gestures designed to insult or demean you as a person.


Unwanted Touching

Unwanted Touching is a different category of intimidation than Physical Intimidation because it does not include a threat of injury.

Unwanted Touching includes

  • patting, poking, stroking, hand touches

    These actions when accepted by both parties may be harmless, but if you have expressed a choice not to be patted or to have an arm around your shoulders and the behavior continues, it may constitute harassment and can be considered intimidation.


An Atmosphere of Intimidation

Because of the wide range or accepted human behavior in a diverse society, this type of intimidation usually requires an ongoing pattern of both a type of behavior and a refusal to modify the behavior when a complaint is expressed in an appropriate way (see below).

Behaviors that create an Intimidating Atmosphere can include

  • language which is inappropriately intimate or affectionate;
  • inappropriate sexual behavior in public;
  • inappropriate clothing such as extreme styles or excessive exposure;
  • inappropriate materials such as sexually explicit photos (even of family members);

    What is inappropriate is decided, to some extent, by the prevailing attitudes of the majority of workers, but when the prevailing attitude is clearly meant to exclude concern for workers who may represent a minority within the group (such as women) it may be defined as intimidation or as harassment.

    In determining whether a behavior falls into this category, it may also be necessary to consider whether your awareness of the behavior is a necessary part of your workplace activity. An offensive photo displayed on a desktop is a public display, but one tucked inside the drawer of a desk used by only one party may be considered to be a privacy matter.


If you decide that behavior you are experiencing falls into one of the categories above:

If the intimidator or harasser is not your immediate supervisor, report the activity to your supervisor. Unless the behavior is at the most egregious level of physical intimidation, your supervisor may not be able to take any decisive action immediately.

  • What you can expect is
    • the offender should be informed of the complaint,
    • the offender should be instructed to desist in the behavior,
    • and the Human Resources (HR) Department in the company should be informed that a potential problem exists.

    You should be informed that these steps have been taken. Keep in mind that in a large company, if you and the intimidator are not under the same supervisor, this might take as long as several days.

If the intimidator or harasser is your supervisor

  • What you can do is
    • go directly to the Human Resources (HR) Department in the company, not to another supervisor or layer of management,
    • inform the HR department that a potential problem exists.

    You should then expect HR to play the role of a responsible supervisor in informing the offender (and his supervisor) of the complaint, and instructing the offending supervisor to desist in the behavior. You should be informed that these steps have been taken. Again, keep in mind that in a large company this might take as long as several days.

In either circumstance you should:

  • Set up a reporting process either with your supervisor or directly to HR, depending on your company structure. Sometimes large companies have established mechanisms specifically designed to deal with this documentation and personnel entrusted with this job. It is often the case that behaviors which are not serious enough to warrant action can become so when they are repeated and become a pattern.

  • Begin documenting the behavior. This can be done by reporting behaviors, or confirming reports, through email which is dated and addressed or in a file kept by your supervisor or HR department. You should also document behaviors, complaints, and information on the steps taken by the company to respond to your concerns, and their results, in a personal "log" or diary in which you feel free to be complete in your descriptions.

While there are many legal nuances throughout this process, it is best to treat Physical Intimidation that includes either violent contact or misdirected contact as a serious threat to your safety and to begin the above process as soon as the behavior is noted. With other behaviors, where there is a possibility of misunderstanding and, if physical safety is not an issue, it is sometimes best to first address the behavior directly with the co-worker, informing your supervisor of the incident and your approach to dealing with it.

If you attempt to deal with a such a behavior directly and a single warning or clarification does not solve the problem, direct your concerns to your supervisor (or the HR department as noted above) and expect that the appropriate steps be taken.

If you have documented your complaint, have reported the incident or series of incidents and a supervisor who is not the problem co-worker does not appear to be responding, go directly to the Human Resources Department. If you do not receive a supportive response within a day or two of that action, it may be time to file a report with your local Equal Employment Office and/or to consult an attorney who specializes in these problems.

    Harassment, Physical or Sexual, is not acceptable workplace behavior and you should not put up with it!



The American Bar Association's Commission on Domestic Violence

The Family Violence Prevention Fund

The Montgomery Work/Life Alliance's Workplace Domestic Violence Manual

Safe Horizon's Domestic Violence Shelter Tour and Information Site

The United States Department of Health and Human Services, Healthfinder, Domestic Violence

The United States Department of Justice's Violence Against Women Office

If you have questions about equal employment, including civil rights and harassment issues, visit the US Department of Education Office of Civil Rights online.


Warning List of Abusive Domestic Behaviors.

Domestic Violence Safety Plan.

©1999-2001 Georgia Jones