Harassment

Harassment is a form of employment discrimination that violates Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967, (ADEA), and the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, (ADA).

Harassment is unwelcome conduct that is based on race, color, religion, sex (including pregnancy), national origin, age (40 or older), retaliation, disability, or genetic information. 

Harassment becomes unlawful where 1) enduring the offensive conduct becomes a condition of continued employment, or 2) the conduct is severe or pervasive enough to create a work environment that a reasonable person would consider intimidating, hostile, or abusive. Anti-discrimination laws also prohibit harassment against individuals in retaliation for filing a discrimination charge, testifying, or participating in any way in an investigation, proceeding, or lawsuit under these laws; or opposing employment practices that they reasonably believe discriminate against individuals, in violation of these laws.

Petty slights, annoyances, and isolated incidents (unless extremely serious) will not rise to the level of illegality. To be unlawful, the conduct must create a work environment that would be intimidating, hostile, or offensive to reasonable people.

Offensive conduct may include, but is not limited to, offensive jokes, slurs, epithets or name calling, physical assaults or threats, intimidation, ridicule or mockery, insults or put-downs, offensive objects or pictures, and interference with work performance. 

Harassment can occur in a variety of circumstances, including, but not limited to, the following:

  • The harasser can be the victim’s supervisor, a supervisor in another area, an agent of the employer, a co-worker, or a non-employee.
  • The victim does not have to be the person harassed, but can be anyone affected by the offensive conduct.
  • Unlawful harassment may occur without economic injury to, or discharge of, the victim.

Employees are encouraged to inform the harasser directly that the conduct is unwelcome and must stop. Employees should also report harassment to management at an early stage to prevent its escalation.

Sexual Harassment

Sexual harassment is a form of sex discrimination that violates Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967, (ADEA), and the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, (ADA).  Title VII applies to employers with 15 or more employees, including state and local governments. It also applies to employment agencies and to labor organizations, as well as to the federal government.

Unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature constitute sexual harassment when this conduct explicitly or implicitly affects an individual’s employment, unreasonably interferes with an individual’s work performance, or creates an intimidating, hostile, or offensive work environment.

Sexual harassment can occur in a variety of circumstances, including but not limited to the following:

  • The victim as well as the harasser may be a woman or a man. The victim does not have to be of the opposite sex.
  • The harasser can be the victim’s supervisor, an agent of the employer, a supervisor in another area, a co-worker, or a non-employee.
  • The victim does not have to be the person harassed but could be anyone affected by the offensive conduct.
  • Unlawful sexual harassment may occur without economic injury to or discharge of the victim.
  • The harasser’s conduct must be unwelcome.

It is also unlawful to retaliate against an individual for opposing employment practices that discriminate based on sex or for filing a discrimination charge, testifying, or participating in any way in an investigation, proceeding, or litigation under Title VII.

There are two types of sexual harassment: “quid pro quo” and “hostile work environment.”

Quid pro quo means “this for that.” In this context, it involves expressed or implied demands for sexual favors in exchange for some benefit (e.g., a promotion, pay increase) or to avoid some detriment (e.g., termination, demotion) in the workplace. Quid pro quo harassment is perpetrated by someone who is in a position of power or authority over another (e.g., manager or supervisor over a subordinate). A clear example of quid pro quo harassment would be a supervisor threatening to fire an employee if he or she does not have sex with the supervisor.

Hostile work environment harassment arises when speech or conduct is so severe and pervasive it that creates an intimidating or demeaning environment or situation that negatively affects a person’s job performance. Unlike quid pro quo harassment, this type of harassment can be perpetrated by anyone in the work environment, including a peer, supervisor, subordinate, vendor, customer or contractor. Hostile work environment situations are not as easy to recognize, given that an individual comment or occurrence may not be severe, demeaning behavior may occur that is not based on sex, and there may be long periods between offensive incidents. Examples of conduct that might create a hostile work environment include inappropriate touching, sexual jokes or comments, repeated requests for dates and a work environment where offensive pictures are displayed.

Unwelcome actions such as the following are inappropriate and, depending on the circumstances, may in and of themselves meet the definition of sexual harassment or contribute to a hostile work environment:

  • Sexual pranks, or repeated sexual teasing, jokes, or innuendo, in person or via e-mail;
  • Verbal abuse of a sexual nature;
  • Touching or grabbing of a sexual nature;
  • Repeatedly standing too close to or brushing up against a person;
  • Repeatedly asking a person to socialize during off-duty hours when the person has said no or has indicated he or she is not interested (supervisors in particular should be careful not to pressure their employees to socialize);
  • Giving gifts or leaving objects that are sexually suggestive;
  • Repeatedly making sexually suggestive gestures;
  • Making or posting sexually demeaning or offensive pictures, cartoons or other materials in the workplace;
  • Off-duty, unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature that affects the work environment.

It is helpful for the victim to inform the harasser directly that the conduct is unwelcome and must stop. The victim should use any employer complaint mechanism or grievance system available.

When investigating allegations of sexual harassment, the whole record is looked at: the circumstances, such as the nature of the sexual advances, and the context in which the alleged incidents occurred. Petty slights, annoyances, and isolated incidents (unless extremely serious) will not rise to the level of illegality. To be unlawful, the conduct must create a work environment that would be intimidating, hostile, or offensive to reasonable people.

Information provided by 

– The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) http://www.eeoc.gov

– The U.S. Department of State http://www.state.gov

Last revised 19-Aug-22