Workplace harassment is all too common. As victims are often unsure of what qualifies as harassment and what to do when they’re being harassed, it often goes unreported and continues to be an issue. Workplace harassment can ruin a great job and turn a company into a toxic and unproductive environment.
The “Me Too” movement has enhanced awareness of sexual harassment and many employers have reexamined and strengthened their policies and procedures. Victims have felt more comfortable reporting incidences of harassment. A recent ABC News-Washington Post poll indicated that 33 million U.S. women have been sexually harassed in work-related incidents.
Definition of Workplace Harassment
Workplace harassment is a form of discrimination that violates Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and other federal regulations.
The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) defines harassment as unwelcome verbal or physical behavior that is based on race, color, religion, sex (including pregnancy), gender/gender identity, nationality, age (40 or older), physical or mental disability, or genetic information.
Harassment becomes unlawful when:
- Enduring the offensive conduct becomes a prerequisite to continued employment, or
- The conduct is severe or pervasive enough that a reasonable person would consider the workplace intimidating, hostile, or abusive. Also, if a supervisor’s harassment results in an obvious change in the employee’s salary or status, this conduct would be considered unlawful workplace harassment.
Some States and Companies Have Broader Definitions
Some states have statutes that prohibit discrimination or harassment on the basis of whether a person is a smoker. A handful of states, including Wisconsin and New York, along with some private companies have laws or policies that prohibit discrimination and harassment based on arrest records or convictions.
Harassing conduct may include offensive jokes, slurs, name-calling, physical assaults or threats, intimidation, ridicule, insults, offensive pictures, and more.
Workplace harassment isn’t limited to sexual harassment and doesn’t preclude harassment between two people of the same gender. The harasser can be your boss, a supervisor in another department, a co-worker, or even a nonemployee. Interestingly, the victim doesn’t necessarily have to be the person being harassed; it can be anyone affected by the harassing behavior. To file a valid harassment claim, you have to show that your employer tried to prevent and correct the harassing conduct and that the employee unreasonably rejected the employer’s corrective efforts.
Some states have broad definitions of what constitutes harassment. For instance, a court in Florida determined that “fat jokes” made about an obese employee violated the Americans With Disabilities Act. A New Jersey court ruled that a person could bring a claim for disability harassment based upon two remarks made about their diabetic condition.
Harassment at Job Interviews
In addition to harassment occurring in the workplace, harassment can also take place during a job interview. During an interview, employers should not ask about your race, gender, religion, marital status, age, disabilities, ethnic background, country of origin, or sexual preferences.
These are discriminatory questions because they are not relevant to your abilities, skills, and qualifications to do the job.
The Boundary for Acceptable Behavior
Sometimes it’s hard to tell whether if a situation qualifies as workplace harassment. Some common situations which count as workplace harassment include:
- Pedro was a victim of workplace harassment when his boss repeatedly referred to him with reference to his country of origin and characterized his work negatively based on his heritage.
- Ellen filed a claim with the EEOC because her boss restricted her to a receptionist role based on her appearance despite receiving her college degree and possessing the skills for an inside sales job. He repeatedly said that customers liked “having a looker up front.”
- Bonnie was subject to workplace harassment when her supervisor asked her out for drinks on many occasions and told her that she could go a long way if she played her cards right with him.
- Jane was uncomfortable with references to the sexual conquests of co-workers in the break room. She responded to this workplace harassment by mentioning her discomfort to one of the perpetrators with whom she had a rapport. He spoke to the others, and their behavior ceased.
The Law and Your Options
Laws regarding workplace harassment are enforced by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Any individual who believes that his or her employment rights have been violated may file a charge of discrimination with the EEOC.
However, prior to doing so, victims should usually make an effort to resolve the situation internally. One option is to reach out to the offending individual directly. Describe your feelings and the unacceptable language or behavior and request that it stop. Another option could involve contacting your supervisor for assistance if you are uncomfortable confronting the offender directly.
In cases where the perpetrator is your supervisor or if you are uncomfortable approaching her/him, you can contact either the Human Resources department or your supervisor’s boss and request redress. In addition, many organizations have designated an EEO or workplace complaint officer specializing in these issues who can be contacted for a confidential consultation.
Job applicants and other harassment victims may choose to consult a labor/employment attorney if other measures have not resulted in a satisfactory resolution. If so, be sure to select a lawyer with extensive experience and or a certification in employment law. Your local bar association will usually provide information about state certifications or ways to identify specialists.
Historically, some employers have urged victims to sign confidentiality agreements as part of the resolution process. Consult an attorney before relinquishing your rights.
Law Office of Bryan A. Chapman
Bryan A. Chapman, Esquire