Workplace discrimination and harassment can take many different forms. In some companies, it may look like an abject refusal to hire individuals of a specific racial background, religion or gender. The person in charge of making hiring or termination decisions may apply their personal biases to that process and discriminate against individuals for no valid reason.

Other times, workplace violations look a lot more like bullying. While people associate bullying with schools, it is not an activity that suddenly stops when people leave adolescence.

Bullying and verbally abusing other people, especially about personal traits over which they have no control, is a serious form of harassment. It can be particularly hard for workers when management either participates in the bullying or refuses to address it with staff.

Other workers should not comment on your protected characteristics

You spend a lot of time with your boss and your co-workers. That can mean that you get to know one another very well. Joking and playing around is common in the workplace. When done properly, this can be a way for people to become closer and bond. Done improperly, teasing and joking around can actually make someone feel invalidated or hurt.

Even if the tone isn’t malicious, everyone should think about what the grounds are for joking or teasing. If it is a personal preference, like the particular way a co-worker likes to drink coffee, that is probably acceptable to joke about. If it has to do with somebody’s physical disability, gender, race, a national background or other protected characteristic, those jokes may actually be harassment or a form of discrimination.

You should do your best to speak up and tell your co-workers that you don’t appreciate them mocking you for a trait that is often targeted by ignorant or malicious people. However, depending on who is participating in the bullying and joking, you may not feel comfortable standing up for yourself.

Bullying can quickly lead to a hostile work environment

When you live in fear of what your co-workers will say to you next, it can impact both your work performance and your mental health. You may start trying to avoid interacting with specific co-workers or managers or attempting to avoid socialization with other employees during lunch breaks or after hours.

Members of the management team should have a zero tolerance policy for bullying and discrimination in the workplace. Unfortunately, they often participate in these damaging behaviors as well. Reporting the bullying and discrimination you experience at work to human resources is a good first step. However, it may not be an option if there is no human resources department or if the employees in that department engage in the bullying behaviors.

No one should have to feel abused just for showing up at work. If you or someone you love has to deal with bullying and discrimination in the workplace, it may be time to talk to a employment law attorney who can advise you of your rights and how to protect yourself from ongoing abuse.