Hostile Work Environment Law & Related Topics

The Plain English Definition Of Workplace Harassment

Workplace harassment is a violation of title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. In order to understand the definition of workplace harassment, it is crucial to know what harassment is and what a workplace consists of. Harassment is an act committed by a person that makes another feel uncomfortable, offended, intimidated or oppressed. In order for it to be workplace harassment, it should happen in an environment like an office, a store, a school, a factory or any place where people are employed and conduct work.

The most common form of workplace harassment is sexual harassment and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has aptly declared that any offense establishing harassment on any protected class is subject to federal punishment. They also stated that the conventions governing sexual harassment be applied to harassments in relation to religion, gender, race, national origin, age and disability.

Harassment acts in the workplace is a form of discrimination. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act (CRA), passed in 1964 states that “It shall be an unlawful employment practice for an employer to fail or refuse to hire or discharge any individual, or otherwise to discriminate against any individual with respect to his compensation, terms, conditions, or privileges of employment, because of such individual’s race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.” The key here, is that an individual must not be singled out for different treatment.

Harassment comes in many forms.

  • It can be done orally through degrading words, spoken put downs, jokes or other unwanted comments.
  • It can be through actions like physical contact of any kind, put down gestures or other unwanted acts.
  • If any employee who asks, demand or shows any attempt to get sexual attention from another it is already considered sexual harassment in the workplace.

Federal law distinguishes two sets of legal grounds for declaring sexual harassment under Title VII of CRA. The first is quid pro quo. Under the quid pro quo, a person in authority demands sexual favors from a subordinate in exchange for employment security or job benefits. The second is identified as hostile work environment harassment. According to the U.S. Supreme Court, hostile work environment harassment occurs when offensive conduct is severe enough for an employee to not want to go to work because of the work place harassment he or she is experiencing.

On the other hand, any action committed by an employee to another that suggests or promotes racial stereotyping and hatred or prejudice is considered punishable under the race discrimination law. Those who commit racial harassment may harass in subtle ways and they usually do it through jokes, and seemingly harmless comments or questions but it ultimately add up to racial discrimination in the workplace.

There is also workplace bullying in which an employee makes gestures or says words that makes another seem inferior. The workplace bully may pick anything that makes another seem different than him and uses this to harass the other. He or she might draw attention to a person’s disability, age, looks, sexual preference, religious belief, race, gender, family or family background, political inclinations or union activities, among others.

Workplace harassment can happen in several settings. It can happen in or out of the formal workplace. It can happen at a company event like picnic or a party. It usually depends upon your relationship with the harasser and your situation at the time of the offense. For example if a direct superior is at your home and asks sexual favors of you, this is still workplace harassment because the offender has direct power over you and may threaten you in your employment. However if this is done by a co-worker who is not directly your superior, it can not be considered workplace sexual harassment.

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