Workplace harassment is illegal if it is based on protected characteristics covered by federal, state, or local anti-discrimination laws, such as Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 (ADEA), and the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA). But how is harassment legally defined?
Offensive conduct in the workplace that is based on race, color, sex, age, religion, national origin, disability, or even genetic information, can be unlawful harassment if it is considered “severe” or “pervasive.” Petty or isolated instances of harassment are not usually considered unlawful. However, if harassment creates an abusive or hostile work environment, then that harassment has crossed a line and is illegal. It is also illegal to harass or retaliate against an individual who has made a claim of unlawful harassment.
Name-calling, telling dirty jokes, making physical threats, or posting offensive pictures are just some forms of workplace harassment. The perpetrator of the harassment can be any supervisor, coworker or even a non-employee, and the victim can be anyone in the workplace who is offended, not just the direct victim who is targeted.
Another form of unlawful harassment is referred to as quid pro quo sexual harassment. This is the classic scenario where employment, or terms and conditions of employment, are conditioned on an employee’s acquiescence to demands for sexual favors.
Employers can protect themselves from harassment charges by taking preventive measures in the workplace. Clearly communicate what is, and is not, acceptable conduct; provide an effective grievance process for victims; provide harassment training to managers and employees; and create a workplace environment that encourages the reporting of unacceptable behavior. Without taking specific measures to discourage, halt or address workplace harassment, an employer can be financially liable for it.
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