When people hear the word “harassment”, they usually think of sexual harassment involving demands for sexual favors or unwanted physical touching, but harassment can come in many different forms and can be rooted in many different biases. Harassment involving sexual assault gets the most attention in the media, but illegal harassment covers a much broader type of conduct that may target a broader segment of the workforce.
Harassment takes many forms, including disparaging comments, offensive jokes, or inappropriate comments or gestures. Harassment is unlawful if it is because of the employee’s status in a protected group (based on race, color, religion, sex, national origin, age, disability or genetic information).
Sexual harassment is harassment that occurs because of that person’s sex, and unlawful sexual harassment includes requests for sexual favors and unwelcome sexual advances. Sexual harassment that is pervasive and severe enough to create a hostile work environment may also include other verbal or physical harassment, such as pervasive comments or innuendo.
Harassment may also be unlawful if it is done in retaliation for protected workplace activity, including filing a charge of discrimination, testifying or participating in an investigation of discrimination, or objecting to an employer’s discriminatory practices.
Generally, a single instance of harassment is not enough to trigger a violation of the law. An employer becomes liable where the harassment is so severe or pervasive that it alters the employee’s terms and conditions of employment, giving rise to a hostile work environment.
Employees have a duty to report workplace harassment, and employers have obligations to take steps to stop it.
Employers are liable for the harassment committed by their supervisors – whether based on sex, race or some other prohibited basis. If the supervisor’s harassment of a subordinate employee results in a “tangible employment action” (a significant change in the employment relationship), then the employer is liable. If the supervisor’s harassment does not cause a tangible employment action, the employer can avoid responsibility for the supervisor’s harassment if the employer can show that it took reasonable steps to prevent and correct harassing behavior (sometimes even if those steps are not successful) and if the employee failed to take advantage of opportunities to report the harassment.
Harassment is invidious and destructive and creates toxic work environments. At least one medical study found that people with a history of workplace harassment have significantly higher chances of suffering depression, anxiety, hypertension, and sleep disorders. Don’t let an illegal toxic work environment threaten your career or health.
If you think you’ve been harassed and don’t know where to turn, don’t try to fight it alone. Talk with our experienced and compassionate lawyers to learn how we can help you.