It is unfortunate that the very real concern of harassment in the workplace is overshadowed by ridiculous cases in which allegations of harassment are brought in response to thoughtless but mainly harmless remarks inside the office. It has given a new meaning to the phrase “hostile work environment” that some are likening to a form of fascism.
The term sexual harassment was first coined in 1974 at Cornell University but the first case to be tried as sexual harassment was that of the 1986 Meritor Savings Bank v. Vinson trial. The case definitely established how certain acts could be construed as violations of the terms of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The Anita Hill – Clarence Thomas controversy of 1992 further brought this into sharp prominence.
Shortly after, accusations of workplace sexual harassment began flying in all directions. While many women really suffered harassment, some merely sought to gain attention, while some perhaps sought to profit in the light of the favor shown plaintiffs in some cases. Soon, hostile work environment was on everybodys lips as every thoughtless move became discriminatory and every heedless remark offensive. While it would be inaccurate to dismiss all allegations of harassment as attention-grabbing, it is undeniable that a good proportion of such accusations are just that.
Some commentators believe that hostile work environment laws have become so based on paranoia, that people are afraid to socialize in any meaningful manner with co-workers for fear of their words being misconstrued as harassment. Playful ribbing becomes bullying; Polish jokes are racially derogatory (which they are, but no one takes them seriously, not even the Polish); having friends is casting out other people; and a racy joke is sexual harassment. And get this: the act, joke or attitude need not be aimed directly at a person for that person to have the legal standing to sue. They need only be within shouting distance and declared personally offended in some manner for it to be considered harassment.
Of course, the merit of an case will be duly investigated and much of the chaff thrown out before any real damage is done. However many feel it is like being caught in a trap made of glass, with their every move scrutinized and every word sifted for double meaning.
How does this affect the workplace? It makes it an over-restrictive, cautious work environment. Men, Caucasian employees and management are criticized for perfectly normal and innocent acts. Business owners are penalized for not keeping a close eye on their employees, as if they were children who needed to be told how to act and what to say instead of adults capable of rational decisions and reasonable acts
The new level of awareness as well as comprehensive workplace harassment policies have made the real cases of harassment easier to document and prove in court. Vulnerable and formerly-abused minority groups are better protected than ever before. But at what cost, you may ask, when this awareness and these policies are abused by opportunistic, malicious accusations with no basis in fact or even perception. How hostile does it need to get for the wrongfully accused before it is also called harassment?