Workplace harassment laws vary considerably depending on jurisdiction as well as the nature of the harassment. While many countries include prohibitions against harassment in their employment laws, their scope and enforcement can differ significantly. In addition, the very definition of harassment and whom is entitled to protection from harassment are matters also addressed in workplace harassment laws. Workers are often protected against harassment on the basis of their gender, religion, or nationality, with some jurisdictions also forbidding harassment on account of a worker's appearance or sexual identity.
The general purpose of workplace harassment laws is to reduce and prevent economic injustice against individuals who might otherwise be forced from the labor force because they are unable to tolerate threatening, hostile, or humiliating working conditions. By barring the harassment of employees, either by superiors or other workers, these laws can protect an individual's right to support himself and his family through work. These laws frequently address a variety of harassing behavior, including verbal harassment, written harassment, or even the presence of artwork or other materials in the workplace that make a worker uncomfortable.
In the United States, there are multiple sets of workplace harassment laws, existing at the federal, state, and local levels. In some cases, state and local laws may define harassment more stringently than federal law and may also include harsher penalties for non-compliance. These non-federal laws may also define groups of people who are specifically protected against harassment differently than federal law. For example, a state or local law may forbid harassment and discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or body weight. It should be noted, however, that some government agencies, such as those that make decisions about unemployment, may not necessarily be bound to the definitions of harassment included in workplace harassment laws, but may have their own internal policies regarding what constitutes a hostile workplace.
Concern about compliance with workplace harassment laws and preventing workplace harassment has led many businesses to develop a workplace harassment policy as well as training programs designed to educate employees about the nature of harassment and what to do if it occurs. For victims of harassment, following a company's harassment policy is often a key aspect of prevailing in a harassment claim or lawsuit. These programs and policies also can protect companies against litigation or accusations that they did not take workplace harassment laws seriously.