Stress, in and of itself, is not a bad thing. Controlled stress pushes us to do our best. In small amounts, it motivates, invigorates and sharpens the senses. In the MSNBC article, “Can Stress Actually be Good for You,” Dr. Lynne Tan of Montefiore Medical Center in New York, defines stress as, “a burst of energy.” On the other hand, an excessive amount of stress is physically and emotionally harmful. It can be illegal too, if it is caused by discriminatory, degrading or harassing actions in the workplace.
Hostile Work Environment
Employers cannot be sued for stress that is a normal part of the work environment. However, stress that is caused by ongoing harassment, unwelcome conduct or discriminatory practices is illegal. Actions that constitute a hostile work environment may be physical or verbal in nature. To meet the definition of hostile work environment, the harassment must be severe and such that it interferes with an employ’s ability to do his job. Hostile work environment allegations are investigated and prosecuted by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
Name calling, slurs, offensive joke telling, unwanted touching and discriminatory comments contribute to workplace stress and violate numerous federal laws. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits discrimination based on national origin, sex, race, religion or color. The Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 prohibits age-based discrimination and protects employers age 40 and older. The Equal Pay Act of 1963 protects woman and men against unequal pay for substantially the same work. And, the Americans with disabilities act of 1990 prohibit employers from using discriminatory practices against qualified workers with disabilities.
Retaliation occurs when an employer or other employee creates a hostile work environment in order to pay an employee back for engaging in a protected activity. It may involve unjustified demotions, firing or harassing behaviors. Protected activities include filing discrimination charges against the employer, participating in an investigation or lawsuit against the employer, whistleblowing activities and making a complaint about a manager or supervisor to a higher authority in the organization.
Constructive discharge occurs when an employer engages in behaviors designed to make an employee quit. The EEOC defines constructive discharge as behaviors that “make the work environment so intolerable a reasonable person would not be able to stay.” There are many reasons an employer may entice an employee to quit, including retaliation and to avoid vesting in pension or medical benefits.
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Bryan A. Chapman, Esquire