In some jurisdictions, even a single incident of behavior that serves "little or no useful, legitimate purpose" can constitute harassment. In others, especially in cases of "aggravated harassment", much more menacing, persistent or repeated behavior is required to for behavior to constitute harassment.
The takeaway lesson is that before unilaterally interacting with anyone outside the professionally or socially well-rehearsed, conventional and authorized script, check your local laws. Similarly, if you believe you are being harassed, familiarize your with the established definitions and legislation in your jurisdiction to test your suspicions.
The Ontario Human Rights Code defines harassment as "engaging in a course of vexatious comment or conduct that is known or ought reasonably to be known to be unwelcome", and adds that courts have upheld that even a single incident can constitute harassment. It defines "vexatious" as behavior that is "unwelcome and has little or no useful, legitimate purpose in the context in which it takes place". On this definition, asking a colleague out on a date or telling a joke-even just once-could get you into legal hot water or fired.
On the other hand, the State of New York has a more stringent criterion of harassment, by requiring that the accused "engages in a course of conduct or repeatedly commits acts which alarm or seriously annoy such other person and which serve no legitimate purpose." (This presumably makes it safe to tell a boring joke or ask someone out for a date, if doing so does not alarm or seriously annoy the other party-however, without any apparent regard for whether the alarm or annoyance response is "reasonable".)
Knowing the definition of harassment that holds sway in the jurisdiction in which you work or live could be helpful in determining whether you or someone you know is being subjected to it.
Workplace harassment can have costly adverse impacts in the form of lower production, low morale, high employee turnover and legal action. Therefore, it is essential to understand what constitutes harassment in order to recognize its occurrence, to prevent and to put a stop to it.
Any physical or verbal abuse of a person because of his or her disability, race, gender, religion, age or any other legally protected status, constitutes harassment. In the workplace, harassment can be further clarified as any type of conduct that causes considerable anguish to a fellow worker, with the intention of bothering, scaring or emotionally abusing the person. State and federal laws relating to harassment further outline the various situations and conditions under which harassment can happen.
Despite the best of intentions, governments may, through vague or careless wording, either create loopholes for those who would otherwise be charged with harassment or may, on the other hand, inadvertently penalize innocent behavior, e.g., telling a non-obscene joke or asking someone out on a date, just once.
Whether some behaviors, such as jokes about age or weight; comments or compliments about religion, physical condition, clothing, perfume, hair style; or banter and teasing about shyness or one's new car constitute harassment is heavily dependent on the highly-variable mandated definitions governing harassment-especially regarding whether a single incident can suffice to make a formal harassment charge stick.
Given the grip of political correctness on modern society, one cannot be too careful-until that too becomes offensive.
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