Harassment Definition

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 What is the Definition of Harassment?

Harassment includes any type of behavior which is:

  • Offensive;
  • Threatening;
  • Demeaning; or
  • Belittling.

In the context of the workplace, it also includes behavior that is:

  • Hurtful;
  • Embarrassing; or
  • An attempt to undermine the individual in their workplace.

One example of harassment occurs when an employee constantly makes jokes regarding an individual’s manner of dress at their workplace. In many cases, harassment involves ongoing behavior because many employees are fearful or hesitant to report these types of incidents.

Harassment in the workplace is also known as a hostile work environment. Harassment can exist, however, in many places outside of a work environment.

For example, harassment may occur in relation to:

  • School environments;
  • Neighbors;
  • Religious groups;
  • Social groups; and
  • Many other settings.

Harassment may include issues such as discrimination or hate crimes. Harassment involving employment discrimination involves hostile, unwanted or inappropriate behavior that occurs in the workplace.

Although a workplace relationship is not considered harassment per se, it may be possible for a workplace relationship, especially a romantic relationship, to lead to situations which may give rise to a harassment claim. There are some ways in which a workplace relationship may create liability, including:

A workplace relationship, especially one between a supervisor and a subordinate employee, may expose an employer to a sexual harassment claim. A voluntary romantic relationship which ends badly may result in a spurned employee who claims that the relationship was the result of targeting or coercion from their former party for harassment or humiliation out of spite.

Employees outside the relationship may be able to file a claim for a hostile work environment if the relationship results in pervasive verbal or sexual behavior in the workplace. The behavior must have a significant effect on the employee and prevent them from properly performing their work.

Another type of claim which may arise is a conflict of interest claim. A workplace relationship often leads to:

  • Favoritism;
  • Work opportunities; and
  • Perks and benefits being allocated unfairly or inappropriately.

What is Sexual Harassment?

A harassment claim may involve sexual harassment. Sexual harassment may include behavior such as requiring a co-worker to provide a sexual favor in exchange for advancements or benefits. It may also involve a situation where the overall atmosphere of the workplace is inappropriate.

Sexual harassment is a major subcategory of employment law. It has essentially become its own separate category apart from general harassment, or the hurtful and offensive harassment discussed above. It is important to note that any form of harassment is illegal and may lead to various legal consequences.

Sexual harassment includes any unwelcome physical, verbal, or visual conduct of a sexual nature which is pervasive or severe and affects working conditions. It is prohibited by Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Pursuant to Title VII, there are two main categories of sexual harassment, quid pro quo sexual harassment and hostile work environment sexual harassment. Either of these forms of sexual harassment can be experienced by an individual of either gender.

Quid pro quo sexual harassment typically occurs when an individual in a supervisory position requests sexual favors in exchange for an employment benefit. Hostile work environment sexual harassment occurs when an individual in a workplace does any of the following which impact an employee’s ability to do their job:

  • Make intimidating or threatening comments;
  • Making inappropriate jokes; or
  • Making repeated unwanted sexual advances.

Title VII applies to:

  • A private employer that has more than 15 employees;
  • State and local governments;
  • Labor unions; and
  • The federal government.

A victim of harassment does not have to be an individual of the opposite gender of the harasser. Harassment in the workplace becomes illegal when an individual experiences behavior which suggests that either submitting to or rejecting a behavior, either implicitly or explicitly, will result in one of the following:

  • Affecting the individual’s employment;
  • Unreasonably interfering with the individual’s work performance; or
  • Creating an offensive, intimidating or hostile work environment.

If, for example, a supervisor indicates that an individual’s continued employment depends on their agreement to provide sexual favors to the supervisor, it is sexual harassment. The individual may reasonably believe that rejecting the demands of their supervisor may lead to dismissal from their employment.

There are certain types of behavior which may be considered minor and can be brushed off if they occur once or on a very limited basis. If, however, the behavior is repeated, it becomes harassment which is illegal.

Harassment is illegal when it is:

  • Frequent;
  • Severe or intimidating; and
  • Creates a hostile or offensive work environment.

Behaviors which may qualify as harassment include, but are not limited to:

  • Comments about an individual’s body;
  • Jokes of a sexual nature;
  • Requests for dates;
  • Requests for sexual favors;
  • Spreading rumors about an individual’s sex life;
  • Touching another individuals clothing or body;
  • Emails, pictures, or screensavers, of a sexual nature.

If, for example, an individual’s coworker asks them to review something work-related on their computer and when the individual looks at the computer, a photograph of a sexual nature is on their background, it would be considered harassment of a visual nature.

A common form of harassment is a hostile workplace. For example, an individual may work at a vehicle repair establishment where employees often use obscene, coarse language and repeatedly make sexual jokes or innuendos as well as sexual advances towards another individual which may create a hostile workplace.

There are also other types of behavior which are clearly severe and unacceptable and should be immediately addressed even if they only occur on one occasion. These include:

  • Exposure of inappropriate body parts;
  • Threats of physical violence;
  • Battery, or attempted battery;
  • Rape, or attempted rape.

It is important to note that harassment does not have to be of a sexual nature. It may include offensive remarks about an individual’s gender. For example, an individual who constantly berates women as a gender may be guilty of sexual harassment.

It is not necessary for the harasser to be the individual’s supervisor, although that may be the case. A harasser may be a co-worker or a customer or client of the business.

A harasser can be anyone who is associated with the individual’s place of employment. In addition, the individual does not necessarily have to be the target of the harassment. They may be in the same environment as the harasser and are victimized by witnessing the harassment.

What are Some Consequences for Harassment?

Harassment cases may result in numerous consequences, including:

  • Penalties at work, include a demotion;
  • Termination, or the loss of a job;
  • Civil charges; and
  • In certain cases, criminal charges, including:
    • a restraining order;
    • criminal fines; and
    • jail time.

An employer is prohibited by law from terminating an employee for reporting harassment in the workplace, known as retaliatory discharge. This applies even if it is determined that the claim is not true. Knowing filing a false claim for harassment, however, is also against the law and may result in criminal penalties for the individual who filed the false report.

Do I Need a Lawyer for Help with a Harassment Claim?

It is important to have the assistance of a sexual harassment lawyer for any workplace harassment issues you may be facing. Harassment is serious and should be promptly addressed.

Your attorney can review your case, provide advice regarding the possible outcomes, and represent you if a lawsuit becomes necessary. The laws governing harassment may vary by jurisdiction, so it is important to consult with an attorney who can provide an interpretation of the laws in your state.

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