Harassment in the workplace has risen to the forefront in the media, and employers are (rightfully) concerned about how to protect their employees and businesses from workplace harassment claims. Employers want to know what exactly harassment is and how to prevent it. Some employees may complain of conduct that meets the common-sense definition of harassment, but it may not meet the legal definition.
If you’re an employee with questions about harassment in the workplace, here’s a quick overview.
By legal definition, harassment is a form of discrimination that violates federal law. Harassment is unwelcome conduct based on race, religion, sex (including pregnancy), national origin, age, or disability or genetic information. Harassment becomes unlawful when the offensive conduct becomes a condition of continued employment, or the conduct is so severe that it creates a work environment that a reasonable person would consider intimidating, hostile, or abusive.
Again, the federal standard for a hostile work environment is higher than that which many people assume. Typically, “isolated incidents” or verbal insults will not rise to the level of harassment under federal law. Harassment may include, but is not limited to, offensive jokes, slurs, name calling, physical threats, intimidation, ridicule or mockery, offensive objects or pictures, and interference with work performance.
Anyone affected by the offensive conduct may claim harassment—not necessarily just the targeted victim. Anyone in the workplace can be a harasser—beyond a supervisor, employees may file a claim against a coworker, an independent contractor, and even a non-employee.
Employers who are on notice of harassment and fail to take action to protect the victim or the affected employees, may be liable for harassment. Employers who take negative action against the victim or the affected employees, rather than against the perpetrators of the harassment, may also be liable. The best way for employers to protect themselves is to put into place a proactive plan for preventing and handling workplace harassment.
An experienced employment law attorney can advise you on how to put plans and policies into place to protect your employees and your business.