Workplace harassment is all too common, and can ruin a great job and turn a company into a toxic and unproductive environment. Often, harassment goes unreported, as victims may be unsure of what qualifies as workplace harassment and what to do when they experience it.
However, there are signs of change. The "Me Too" movement has enhanced awareness of sexual harassment. In a paper in the journal PLOS ONE, researchers reported finding “reduced levels of the most egregious forms of sexual harassment” in the workplace between 2016 and 2018.
Further, many states have enacted new legislation to protect workers from sexual harassment. According to HRDive, 13 states have limited the use of non-disclosure agreements between 2017 and 2019, while five states have extended protections to interns, and four states and New York City have extended their statute of limitations for filing complaints related to sexual harassment.
Many workers may remain unsure what constitutes harassment, sexual or otherwise. Learn what the law says about workplace harassment and how to protect yourself.
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, including the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967, and the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990.
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 broader 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.
Some states have statutes that prohibit discrimination or harassment on the basis of whether a person is a smoker. According to the National Employment Law Project, 35 states and over 150 cities have laws that prohibit discrimination based on arrest records or convictions.
A few other states prohibit discrimination in relation to a person's receipt of public assistance. The District of Columbia prohibits discrimination on the basis of marital status, personal appearance, family responsibilities, or political affiliation.
Components of Workplace Harassment
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.
Note that not all unpleasant behavior qualifies as harassment. Per the EEOC: “Petty slights, annoyances, and isolated incidents (unless extremely serious) will not rise to the level of illegality. To be unlawful, the conduct must create a work environment that would be intimidating, hostile, or offensive to reasonable people.”
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 that likely 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.
The Law and Your Options
Laws regarding workplace harassment are enforced by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Any individual who believes that their employment rights have been violated may file a charge of discrimination with the EEOC.
Handling Workplace Harassment
However, prior to doing so, the EEOC advises that victims should usually make an effort to address the situation by reaching 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.
The information contained in this article is not legal advice and is not a substitute for such advice. State and federal laws change frequently, and the information in this article may not reflect your own state’s laws or the most recent changes to the law.