What Is Work Harassment?

Harassment at work is an unlawful form of discrimination that creates a hostile work environment that employees must endure against their will in order to maintain their employment. Defined by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), it's described as any unwanted verbal, physical, or other act based on age, disability, ethnicity, gender identity, race, religion, or sex. It can take place between two or more people regardless of gender or position within a company.

Federal laws regarding workplace harassment are part of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. States have their own workplace harassment laws, and some are more stringent than others. For example, New York State's Human Rights Law prohibits discrimination against people defined by the EEOC but provides a broader scope of protection. In New York, workers cannot face discrimination based on unemployment status, military status, felonious record, political views, or whether they are victims of domestic violence.

By understanding harassment at work, employees are more apt to handle the situation or prevent it from happening altogether. Regardless of whether it affects the victim, a bystander, or the aggressor, harassment can have an adverse effect on career aspirations. However, it's important to note that each case of harassment is unique, and whether it's discriminatory or illegal is determined on a case-by-case basis.

Quid Pro Quo vs. Hostile Work Environment

There are two major types of sexual harassment in the workplace, yet there's a clear distinction between the two. Quid quo pro is a type of sexual harassment, usually by a supervisor, where the victim is asked or required to do a sexual favor in return for career advancement. This advancement may include a promotion, retention of employment, a raise, or satisfactory shifts or assignments. On many occasions, quid quo pro actions or comments are far more aggressive and cause more mental or physical duress to the victim.

A hostile work environment, on the other hand, is when a co-worker or employee makes it more difficult for a victim or bystander to perform a job because of the comments or actions they make. This type of situation can include sexual comment as well as derogatory statements that poke fun at race, religion, ethnicity, weight, sex, sexual orientation, and more. Hostile work environments may also require the actions or statements to come with more frequency. This is because they're typically less aggressive or offensive than quid pro quo events.

Types of Harassment at Work

There are several types of harassment in the workplace, and some are more common than others. Still, employees should always be aware of the different types of harassment so they can protect themselves from aggression or accusations. The main types of harassment include:

  • Supervisory Harassment
  • Co-worker Harassment
  • Physical Harassment
  • Verbal Harassment

Supervisory Harassment

One of the most intimidating types of harassment comes from supervisors. The supervisory type of harassment is especially intimidating because of the hierarchy of power in most corporations or companies. Because they have the power to offer raises, demote, promote, or change employees' schedules or assignments, most employees feel trapped, vulnerable, or lost when a supervisor becomes offensive.

In sexual harassment cases, supervisors use their position of power to ask for sexual favors in return for employee benefits. Many of these situations end in an excessive fine for the company, especially if it's shown that the company made little to no effort to curb the harassment or the company fires the individual as a result of sexual harassment.

In one example regarding UBS Financial Services, the vice president and manager of the company repeatedly made unwanted sexual comments about the victim's appearance and dress, sent explicit emails, and even called the victim's house to make unsolicited advances. The victim documented these situations, but when they complained to upper management, they were promptly fired. Because the person complained to management yet was almost entirely ignored, it constituted a full-on case of sexual harassment. This resulted in a settlement for the victim of over $8.4 million.

Co-worker Harassment

While many cases involving harassment and sexual harassment in the workplace are the result of supervisors preying on subordinates, other situations involve co-workers doing a similar thing. Although they can't leverage their comments with threats regarding promotion, raises, or other quid pro quo situations, they can definitely create a hostile work atmosphere. This includes sexually harassing conduct as well as comments, actions, and written correspondence that makes a negative impact on the working environment of an individual or others.

An example is a suit brought about by the EEOC in 2011 that alleged that a North Carolina trucking company did nothing to stop a hostile work environment against two of their African-American employees. This was mostly the result of other workers at the jobsite who made derogatory comments, threats, and racial slurs against the two other workers. After finding that the company did nothing to quell the incidents, a jury awarded the two a settlement of over $200,000 in punitive damages.

Physical Harassment

While not as common as verbal harassment in the workplace, physical harassment (as well as what many think of when considering the issue of sexual harassment) is often more severe. In any case, physical harassment is typically a more severe type of harassment in terms of the victim's mental pain or physical anguish. Physical harassment includes any touching, groping, pushing, hitting, or rubbing that's deemed unwarranted, unwanted, and inappropriate.

Because sexual harassment in quid pro quo and hostile work environment situations often involves touching, there are several case studies that show the severity of the problem and what happens when companies choose to sweep the issue under the rug.

In a recent case, several employees of a Red Lobster claimed to the EEOC that a manager created a hostile work environment through his conduct. This included physical harassment such as groping, rubbing, or touching. However, it was not a quid pro quo case where a manager asked for sexual favors in return for career advancement. Instead, the group of female employees filed a claim with the EEOC that their manager's actions created a hostile work environment. Despite telling upper management and the corporate office about the problem, nothing was ever done. Eventually, the company settled with the victims out of court for $160,000. In addition, Red Lobster promised to conduct harassment training and change its policy on how to handle sexual harassment in the future.

Verbal Harassment

Verbal harassment is often regarded as the most common type of sexual harassment because it's the easiest to perpetrate. Many offenders don't even know that they're doing it. This could include off-color comments or jokes, insults, inappropriate comments, or any other type of verbalized statement that's directly or indirectly derogatory to the victim.

In a recent case involving the EEOC and an Arizona-based company, a plaintiff sued and eventually settled out of court for over $50,000. The case involved a supervisor and his employee. The employee alleged that his supervisor made a series of insulting remarks to him, including negative jokes about Arabs and comments that the plaintiff's dress made him look like he was "going to blow up the World Trade Center." The employee repeatedly told management about the multiple infractions, yet the company decided to do nothing based on these claims. The filing with the EEOC eventually resulted in a win for the plaintiff.

One important distinction to make in harassment is some instances of discrimination. While gender, religion, race, age, and sexual orientation are all protected characteristics, other instances aren't as indistinguishable. General complaints about the work situation or work environment don't necessarily constitute a bout of harassment (that is, unless valid complaints to the supervisor result in poorer working conditions or shifts for workers on the job).

Offensive Conduct vs. Unwanted Conduct

Unwarranted and unwanted advances, written, or verbal conduct are all examples of offensive conduct. If deemed offensive, this eventually becomes grounds for harassment. However, these comments are only considered illegal if they're discriminatory against a person's race, ethnicity, religion, sex, and other protected characteristics. However, not every bit of offensive content is necessarily unwanted. Though certain comments or jokes may be in poor taste, this may not always result in an unwanted work scenario.

In sexual harassment cases, unwelcome and offensive conduct are hard to decipher, if only because some of the comments, sexual advances, or lascivious jokes may not always offend the recipient. When the accused is fully capable of showing that the victim also made statements, jokes, and actions in the same manner, the burden of proof is on the accuser to prove that the comments were actually unwanted and not just a normal exchange. This is often hard to prove, especially when the accused and the accuser are both the same sex.

Regardless of whether the action or comment is considered offensive or unwanted, the first step for any employee is to tell the offending party exactly what they're doing that offends them. Then, they should tell them that this behavior is completely inappropriate and should cease immediately. If this still fails to quell the problem, more drastic action is taken. Victims need to file a formal complaint to upper management as outlined in their employee handbook. If there's still no change in behavior, that's when it's time to file a claim with the EEOC.

Victims who are members of a union may also have other recourse as the result of harassment in the workplace. As a starting point, the accuser should review the collective bargaining agreement. This is readily available in most unions, and if not, there's a party to contact to provide you with the information that you requested. Once the victim finds that they may have been a victim of harassment, a clerk or other union party member should file a request to the union on their behalf.

Preventing Harassment Without Losing the Right to Sue

One of the biggest problems with harassment is that the improper action may result in the offending party or company getting off scot-free. To prevent this from happening, remember that the first step to reserving your right to sue for damages while also trying to prevent harassment is to document everything. By documenting every instance of harassment and correspondence with upper management, there's no chance for details to go awry.

When documenting a harassment case, write down the following both at work and at a secured location away from the job:

  • Date and time of harassment
  • The victim's reaction, as well as when they told the perpetrator to cease the activity
  • If a verbal admission of offense doesn't stop the behavior, make sure to send an email to the offender (if necessary, make a carbon copy to any necessary third-party)
  • Always remember to make an internal complaint with management when feeling intimidated or threatened
  • When the complaint is filed, write down any further investigation that the company makes to curb the problem

Filing a Claim With the EEOC

After all of these requirements are met, hopefully, the perpetrator stops or the company rectifies the situation. If not, it's time to file a complaint with the EEOC. In this complaint, you should have this information available:

  • Name, number, and address
  • A description of the discriminatory events (this can include multiple instances or any type of act against any group, gender, ethnicity, or other party)
  • An explanation of why this particular event constituted harassment (this could include ageism for people over 40 or religious comments against a Hindu, Buddhist, or Muslim)
  • A short description of physical or mental anguish
  • A signature

Once you file the report, the company will receive the claim.

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