3 Subtle Forms of Workplace Harassment Employment Lawyers Can Address

September 9, 2022by LegalASAP

Not all workplace harassment is blatant. For every instance of inappropriate touching or physical altercations, subtle gestures or verbal implications can hurt employees, even if indirectly. These gestures can be as damaging as overt abuse and necessitate legal representation. This post will examine this subtle harassment and what affected ones can do. 

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Subtle forms of workplace harassment

A workplace can still be toxic, even without overt assault or bullying. It’s not uncommon for employees to feel “at odds” with their peers because of subtle jabs or gestures made by workmates. Perhaps you’ve had a colleague give you a “bad vibe” because of their comments or actions. That may especially be true if they seem mocking, sarcastic, or alienating. Here’s a look at how this subtle harassment may look and sound. 

Negative body language 

Actions speak louder than words. We all know this saying, as cliche as it is. You might even roll your eyes at it. Ironically, behaviors such as rolling eyes at an employee can be a form of negative body language. It exemplifies actions that aren’t wrong in themselves but that can express hostility to someone else.

Being the repeated subject of negative body language can wreak havoc on one’s self-esteem and mental health. That stands true whether it’s subtle or aggressive. 

Examples of negative body language

  • Rolling eyes
  • Cutting eyes
  • Intense staring (“grilling”)
  • Face stare downs 
  • Pointing fingers
  • Giving the finger 
  • Making faces 

Some of these behaviors are forms of intimidation. That’s the case when the perpetrator infringes on the victims’ space or uses an offensive gesture. 


Merriam Webster defines a microaggression as “a comment or action that subtly and often unconsciously or unintentionally expresses a prejudiced attitude toward a member of a marginalized group (such as a racial minority).”    

Some words to focus on here are indirect, subtle, and a marginalized group. Take, for example, an office where most staff come from a similar background. In this workplace, there might be just one or two employees from a minority background. In one instance, a member of the majority group asks a question that negatively highlights differences between the majority and minority groups. That would count as a microaggression

Examples of microaggressions

  • Telling someone from a foreign background, “You speak well,” or asking, “How come you don’t speak with an accent?”
  • Telling someone of a specific race, “You’re probably good at this because…” or “It must be a black/Hispanic/Asian/Indian thing to be like X.”
  • Excluding women, LGBTQIA members, or persons with disabilities from specific conversations or activities.

Microaggressions are often unintentional or disguised as a joke. The majority group might not recognize the slight, but the employees of the minority might feel attacked by it. 

Speech behavior harassment

Abusive speech doesn’t always involve swearing, name-calling, or threats. Some improper uses of language come from indirect utterances of words. The speaker doesn’t directly target a person; instead, their speech offends someone else’s morals, values, or ethics. 

Think of it this way: You’re at work, and someone knows you take a strong stance against a particular issue. Perhaps it’s related to controversial subjects, such as the reversal of Roe vs. Wade or COVID-19 misinformation. The agitator could frequently speak contrarily to your perspective, either with others out loud or through media. Ultimately, the intent is to frustrate you. 

That’s speech behavior harassment at work. It is weaponizing language to attack one’s attitudes and beliefs instead of the person or their characteristics. 

Example of speech behavior harassment

  • Divisive political rhetoric (i.e., spoken or presented on posters)
  • Playing music with profane/vulgar lyrics out loud 
  • Contrarian sentiments about particular religions
  • Having sexually explicit conversations out loud
  • Openly promoting conspiracy theories that may offend some employees

Speech behavior harassment can be hard to identify because many of these practices may not seem offensive to employees. 

When to pursue legal representation

Victims of these behaviors could feel as if their self-esteem and sense of security are under attack. They can feel threatening or intimidating, seriously affecting your mental and emotional well-being. 

The World Health Organization (WHO) considers psychological harassment a key contributor to work-related stress and poor employee health. That said, certain instances facing these problems might warrant legal representation from an employment law attorney. 

When to call an employment law attorney

  • Your HR department has ignored your complaints. If your HR department has ignored your complaints about such behavior, then you should contact an employment law attorney. Such a case would be a clear-cut example of negligence.  
  • You’re experiencing psychological distress. Don’t underestimate the damage caused by these behaviors. They can trigger plenty of negative thoughts and emotions. When faced with declining mental health, be sure to get assistance from your HR department can create a  serious issue. In such instances, you should consult an employment law attorney. 

When a corporation fails its workforce in this regard, an employment law attorney can offer legal assistance for employees affected by subtle harassment. 

How an employment law attorney can help

An employment law attorney is there to advocate for your right to be treated equally and with dignity. No form of harassment is acceptable, whether it’s overt or subtle. An employment law attorney can help you present the evidence you’ve collected and bring it to the court of law. If your colleagues ignore your complaints, the judicial system will lend you its ear. Ultimately, it will ensure that attorneys provide legal assistance for employees and the harassment ends. 

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