What is Unlawful Harassment?

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  • Written By: Dorian Hunter
  • Edited By: Angela B.
  • Last Modified Date: 06 February 2020
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Unlawful harassment refers to any action that results in offensive, intimidating or hostile conditions for a person or group of people. It can be either verbal or physical in nature. It is unwelcome behavior frequently focused on gender, age, religion, sexual orientation, race, physical ability or political affiliation. The range of cultural beliefs in society means harassment is a broad term, and what specifies harassing behavior often varies by jurisdiction.

Unlawful harassment is any legally prohibited conduct directed by a person at another person or people and deemed offensive by the recipient. It typically encompasses any objectionable act that humiliates, intimidates or threatens. Usually, the person doing the harassing is aware, or should have been aware, that the act would cause conflict.

Unlawful harassment covers a wide range of offensive behaviors legally prohibited within a jurisdiction. This differs from the colloquial term “harassment”, which involves behavior in a more social context, such as merely annoying or playful acts. In the legal sense, unlawful harassment is persistent behavior found to be threatening or disturbing to others. In exceptional cases, harassment can be a singular incident severe enough to have a lasting impact, such as sexual harassment.


Specific examples of harassment may include repeated and direct instances of yelling, threatening, name-calling in front of others, rude remarks or gestures, and unwanted sexual advances. Less direct means of harassment include discrediting a person’s reputation through gossip, isolating a person from social contact, compelling someone to perform functions below their station, and intentionally setting a person up for failure. A person may encounter harassment through legal channels, such as repeated lawsuits or intimidation by law enforcement and governmental entities.

In many jurisdictions, more than one offensive act is required to constitute unlawful harassment. If only a single event, laws may treat the incident differently and it may not constitute harassment. In some instances, a single event may be sufficient if it is demonstrated that the severity of the offense had a long-term and detrimental impact on the victim.

Unlawful harassment in many countries concerns some legally protected characteristics, such as race, gender, religion, or political affiliation, to name a few. The nature of harassment can become so severe or pervasive that it can affect a victim’s psychological, physical or emotional health. Harassment may take the form of verbal abuse, physical attacks or visual displays. The victim typically is in a position that makes it difficult to respond to the harassment directly, whether it is an employee being harassed by a supervisor, a person being harassed by someone with more money or power, or simply that the victim fears reprisal.


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