Understanding Violence and Harassment in the Work Place

Did you know that currently there is no universally accepted definition of the terms “harassment” or “violence” in the world of work (Chappell and Di Martino, 2006, page 30; de Haan, 2008, page 28). This stems, in part, from the fact that the world of work is still in the process of standardizing a vocabulary to describe these concepts. However, if you google (The definition of harassment and violence), you are going to find tons of descriptions and articles about it, and you will also find more than five definitions recognized by UN Agencies in its guidelines and policies.

In a few words, the definition of “violence and harassment” is to describe the continuum of behaviours that result in physical, psychological, and sexual harm.

Violence and harassment in the world of work

Violence and harassment are highly contextual and is often driven by dynamics operating in the world of work and the greater society, including, but not limited to, power relations, gender norms, cultural and social norms, and discrimination. It can be horizontal and vertical, from internal and external sources (including clients and other third parties and public authorities) – in the public or private sector, or the formal or informal economy.

The International Trade Union Confederation have identified numerous forms of violence at work, whether occurring at the actual place of work or on the way to and from work, including:

  • Physical abuse including assault, battery, attempted murder, and murder
  • Sexual violence including rape and sexual assault
  • Sexual harassment
  • Verbal and sexist abuse
  • Bullying
  • Coercion
  • Psychological abuse, intimidation, and Threats of Violence
  • Economic and financial abuse
  • Stalking

I think certain forms of Violence – Gendered Violence, Racist Violence, and cyber violence are inevitable if loosely, linked to each other, in the sense that they are all undergirded by hierarchical constructions of difference.

A power imbalance in the workplace is considered by the ILO Convention (ILC.107/V/1) as a “core dimension” of bullying. It is seen when a manager uses formal power to bully a worker. And can also stem from the informal power of a dominant group in a workplace, such as “upward workplace mobbing,” where workers harass supervisors.

Power dynamics are also influenced by factors such as gender, race, and class, as is the case of “contra power sexual harassment,” where, for example, a secretary harasses a supervisor of a different race or ethnic group that does not enjoy a position of privilege in society.

Gender is deeply intertwined with power relations, with the traditional balance of power favouring men. The arrival of a woman in a traditionally male-dominated industry can upset existing power relations, and some men reassert their power through sexual harassment. Such enforcing of gender roles is also carried out against non-gender-conforming men, given that “the dominant [heterosexual] culture exacts a tremendous price from those deemed less than fully manly.”

Discrimination based on difference, or perceived difference, can be another substantial driver of violence and harassment.

A general overview of the impact of violence and harassment

I believe that workplace cultures can either promote or challenge negative power and gender norms. However, unfortunately, within certain cultural and social frameworks, violence and harassment can become “normalized” – seen as a normal, or unquestioned, part of daily work.

Gender-Based Violence is both a cause and a consequence of poverty and gender inequality, and it is a central barrier to women’s economic empowerment. GBV also has an enormous economic cost in terms of services (health, police, legal) and decreased productivity, with flow-on effects on family income, mental health, and food security.

Violence and harassment affect workplace relations, worker engagement, health, productivity, quality of public and private services, and enterprise reputation and it also affects labour market participation and, in particular, may prevent women from entering the labour market, especially in male-dominated sectors and jobs, and remaining therein.

Physical violence and harassment can leave obvious physical, but also emotional, scars, requiring rehabilitation and counselling. Psychological and sexual violence and harassment can produce effects such as anxiety, depression, headaches, and sleep disorders, negatively impacting job performance.

A Eurofound survey (2013) found that, following physical violence, workers were three times more likely to experience depression and twice as likely to report stress. After being bullied or harassed, workers were four times more likely to experience depression, three times more likely to report problems sleeping and twice as likely to report stress. Witnesses to violent events, as well as friends and family members of those targeted for violence and harassment, can also experience severe stress and psychological trauma (EverSafe, 2015).

And in economic terms, sexual violence and harassment is an obstacle to women entering and remaining in the workforce, and therefore undermines the long-term earning capacity of women workers and contributes to the gender wage gap.


Violence at the workplace is the most widespread and most tolerated violation of human rights. Responding to workplace violence requires attention to more than just an actual physical attack. Homicide and other physical assaults are on a continuum that also includes domestic violence, stalking, threats, harassment, bullying, emotional abuse, intimidation, and other forms of conduct that create anxiety, fear, and a climate of distrust in the workplace. All are part of the workplace violence problem.

To achieve what we are aiming for, we need an inclusive and integrated approach, basic and clear principles provide a definition of this problem, how to prevent it, and how to respond.

This will require work and advocacy from all of us. Start from your home, work, and community to end violence and harassment inside and outside the workplace.

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