Harassment is a broad term used to describe a variety of unwelcomed, unpleasant, and often intimidating behaviors targeted towards an individual or group. In many cases, harassment is an ongoing occurrence that ostracizes its victims. While no form of harassment is tolerable in the workplace, there are many types of harassment that can land employers in legal trouble. The following will define and discuss illegal workplace harassment in its various forms.
According to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), “Harassment is unwelcome conduct that is based on race, color, religion, sex (including sexual orientation, gender identity, or pregnancy), national origin, older age (beginning at age 40), disability, or genetic information (including family medical history).” Central to this definition is the fact that illegal harassment is based on an individual’s protected status. Additionally, harassment must reach a certain level of severity before it is considered illegal. The EEOC states, “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.”
The U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) provides information about the two types of illegal harassment in their resource, “What do I need to know about…Workplace Harassment.” The first type is referred to as “quid pro quo” or “this for that” harassment. Quid pro quo harassment occurs when decisions are made based on the victim’s acceptance or rejection of advances or requests. Quid pro quo harassment typically involves sexual advances or requests, but it can also involve religious demands. For example, a supervisor may use sexual cooperation or participation in religious activities as a condition of employment.
The second type of illegal harassment is referred to as “hostile work environment harassment.” The DOL states, “A hostile environment can result from the unwelcome conduct of supervisors, co-workers, customers, contractors, or anyone else with whom the victim interacts on the job, and the unwelcome conduct renders the workplace atmosphere intimidating, hostile, or offensive.” With this definition, it is important to note that employers can be held liable for hostile work environment harassment even when it is driven by non-employees. On its “Harassment” webpage, the EEOC states, “The employer will be liable for harassment by non-supervisory employees or non-employees over whom it has control (e.g., independent contractors or customers on the premises), if they knew, or should have known about the harassment and failed to take prompt and appropriate corrective action.”
To summarize, when harassment is based on a protected status and is either a condition for employment or the cause of a hostile work environment, it is illegal.
Explicit vs. Subtle Workplace Harassment
There is an abundance of behaviors that can be considered workplace harassment. Some easily identifiable forms of harassment include name calling, threats, intimidation, ridicule, unwanted touch, displaying sexually suggestive or racially insensitive pictures, mocking a person’s faith, and assault. Unfortunately, not all forms of harassment are so apparent. The Business News Daily article “Workplace Harassment: How to Recognize and Report It,” by Skye Schooley, sheds light on subtler forms such as psychological harassment and certain types of physical and sexual harassment. Schooley states, “Psychological harassment is similar to verbal harassment, but it is more covert and consists of exclusionary tactics, like withholding information.” Victims of psychological harassment may be isolated from coworkers, forced to complete demeaning tasks, denied credit for their ideas, and/or burdened with impossible demands.
Physical and sexual harassment are often masked and downplayed if nobody is assaulted or injured. Schooley quotes the founder of Amplio Recruiting, Chris Chancey, who states, “Sexual harassment in the workplace is seldom egregious. Most of the time, it is masked in mild banter, inoffensive comments that are accompanied by sexual gestures or tones, or awkward but seemingly innocuous statements that portray people of a certain gender (usually women) in a negative light.” Victims of subtle forms of harassment may feel that their discomfort is invalid and that filing a complaint is unwarranted. This allows perpetrators to get away with their behavior.
Addressing Workplace Harassment
It is important to conclude with a brief discussion on how to address workplace harassment. Organizations of all sizes should use a preventative approach to combat harassment before it escalates to a legal concern. The EEOC states “[Employers] should clearly communicate to employees that unwelcome harassing conduct will not be tolerated. They can do this by establishing an effective complaint or grievance process, providing anti-harassment training to their mangers and employees, and taking immediate and appropriate action when an employee complains.” Harassment can be effectively managed when an organization’s actions match its policy. Your hotline can ensure that employees are able to speak-up and that you are able to respond quickly.
Need your employees to understand how to work well with people who are different than them? Check our our article here.