Am I Being Harassed at Work?

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Reader’s Question

I’m Italian-American. A person at work asks me if am in the Mafia. Once, okay. Twice, alright. But three, four times? Then, the person says in front of someone else that he’s trying to find out if I’m in the Mafia. Would I be overreacting to file a harassment claim?

Psychologist’s Reply

I could certainly understand having a strong emotional reaction to this. It is not clear from your question whether the person is trying to be humorous, is actually afraid of you, or some combination. Either way, whether it is teasing or a negative emotional reaction to you based on your national origin, it sounds as if this person is engaging in stereotyping and possibly expressing prejudice. These terms, along with racism and discrimination, are related but different. Although there are various opinions about the exact definitions of these terms, I will attempt to differentiate among them.

Stereotypes involve generalizations about “typical” characteristics of members of a particular group (e.g. “Italians are usually members of the Mafia”). Prejudice is a particular attitude or feeling toward someone based on that person’s group membership. For example, if this person was afraid of you because you are Italian-American, that would be an example of prejudice. Discrimination is when action enters the picture: someone is treated differently based on group membership. So for example, if this coworker did not invite you to lunch simply because you are Italian-American, it would be considered discrimination. Interactions based in prejudice or stereotypes miss the uniqueness of individuals and do not account for differences within groups of people. For example, you might differ from other Italian-Americans in significant ways, but you are being lumped together with everyone who is of Italian descent. It can be maddening, shaming, and scary to be treated in this way.

I do not know what steps you have taken to resolve this with your coworker. Sometimes informal channels can be as effective as formal ones in stopping a particular behavior. Often people who are engaging in behaviors based in prejudice or ignorance are unaware of how they are affecting others. (This may or may not be true in your case.) Again, I do not know the situation or what you have done so far to confront the behavior. But, if your goal is for your coworker to discontinue this behavior, a conversation with him or her or your direct supervisor might be a first step, or could even be all that is needed. As I usually recommend, statements that focus on your reactions or thoughts, rather than focusing on blaming or criticizing another’s actions, are typically more fruitful. Additionally, specific, clear requests are also useful. In your case, this might look like, “Excuse me, but I wanted to share with you that each time you imply that I might be in the Mafia simply because I am Italian, it is hurtful to me. I’m frustrated by your repeated comments about this and I would like you to stop mentioning the Mafia in regards to me.”

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If informal resolution has been unsuccessful, there are likely steps that your company requires if you wanted to pursue a harassment claim. A human resources representative would be able to answer questions about how to proceed.

To find out about legal implications, you might check the website for The Equal Opportunity Employment Commission. According to the EEOC, harassment is defined as follows:

Harassment is unwelcome conduct that is based on race, color, religion, sex (including pregnancy), national origin, age (40 or older), disability or genetic information. Harassment becomes unlawful where 1) enduring the offensive conduct becomes a condition of continued employment, or 2) the conduct is severe or pervasive enough to create a work environment that a reasonable person would consider intimidating, hostile, or abusive.

If you would like more information about filing a charge with the EEOC, they have an information page as well as an online assessment tool that enables you to provide some information and determine whether you have grounds to go forward according to your claim and your state laws.

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