What Is Workplace Harassment and Discrimination? Employees are protected against harassment and discrimination under a number of state and federal laws. They are protected from discrimination because of age, color, national origin, race, gender, pregnancy, sexual orientation, disability, caregiving responsibilities, and political beliefs. While it is hard to cover every harassment or discriminatory action in the law, the law mentions the unlawful reasons why discrimination or harassment may occur. These include termination, failure to promote, failure to hire, or failure to protect an employee for ongoing harassment that they are aware of. If you believe you were harassed at work, you talk a lawyer for employee harassment for free.
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The federal law explicitly covers the following discrimination:
- Gender Discrimination – These are protected under federal, state, and local laws. Discrimination on the basis of sex or gender is illegal in all forms. This means employers or co-workers cannot discriminate in the hiring process, compensation, treatment at work, promotion, or in termination. Employers are also prohibited from basing any employment decisions on assumptions or stereotypes about the performance, traits, or abilities of any gender or sex. If an employee opposes gender discrimination, they are protected against retaliation under federal, state, and local laws.
- Racial Discrimination – Similar to gender discrimination, there are laws concerning racial discrimination in federal, state, and local laws. These prohibit discrimination in the hiring process, promotion, compensation, treatment at work, and termination. Allowing racial discrimination to continue is also considered discrimination from the employer.
- National Origin Discrimination – Laws against discrimination based on national origin go back to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, but there are also local and state laws that concern discrimination. It is unlawful to treat employees less favourably or otherwise discriminate based on their national origin.
- Age Discrimination – The Age Discrimination in Employment Act is in place to prevent discrimination of workers over the age of 40. This means it is unlawful not to provide workers over 40 with the same promotions, training, hiring, job assignments, or terminate employees based on their age. Any age-based harassment that would cause a hostile working environment is also covered under the ADEA.
- Disability Discrimination – The Americans with Disabilities Act, state, and local laws prohibit any discrimination based on disability. If the individual is qualified, they must be given the same opportunities as other qualified employees. Employers also may not deny reasonable requests for accessibility equipment.
What Is A Hostile Work Environment?
All employees have the right to a safe and healthy work environment. If there is harassment, discrimination, or the employee is otherwise prevented from doing their job, this is a hostile work environment. A hostile work environment can seriously impact an employee’s ability to do their job. Harassment is unwelcome conduct or comments based on any legally protected characteristics that interferes with an employee’s ability to perform their duties.
The person creating a hostile work environment could be a manager, supervisor, co-workers, vendors, contractors, clients, or any other people in the place of business. Isolated incidences, annoyances, or petty slights in the workplace may not be considered illegal. However, if the unwelcome and offensive conduct has changed the terms and conditions of your employment, you may be able to file a claim for harassment or a hostile work environment.
How Does The Law Qualify A Hostile Work Environment?
The definition of a hostile workplace will vary depending on the nature of the business. For example, let’s say the case is an employee who works at a tanning salon, and the employee is claiming a hostile work environment because people regularly have their clothes off while being tanned. Because the nature of the workplace is that people need to be undressed while being tanned, this is unlikely to be considered a hostile environment. The defense would argue that the employee should have reasonably expected this to be the case.
If the same complaint was in an office environment, and the complaint was employees were shirtless or in a state of undress in the workplace, then the employee could argue that this is a hostile work environment if it causes so much distress that the employee cannot work. Especially if the reason for the undress is to make the employee uncomfortable or intimidate them.
What Are The Laws Regarding a Hostile Workplace?
You can file a lawsuit based on a hostile workplace to state or federal court; the requirements for each will be different. In federal court, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, or EEOC will enforce federal workplace discrimination laws. Resolving discrimination and hostile workplace disputes is its reason for creation. When the EEOC examines a workplace for a hostile work environment, it will look at:
- Type of Conduct – The EEOC will apply a different weight to verbal and physical conduct, so that is the first thing they examine. Intimidation, threats, and physical conduct attract the highest penalties.
- Frequency of Harassment – Depending on the type of conduct, a single isolated incident may not fit the definition of a hostile work environment. The exception would be a serious incident. Long term problems will be weighted higher by the EEOC.
- Discriminatory Intent – The employee must show that the behaviour had discriminatory intent. This means that the harasser’s behavior or comments were based on assumptions or stereotypes about color, religion, gender, pregnancy, age, disability, genetics, race, sexual orientation, or any other protected categories.
- Employer’s Response – The EEOC will examine the response of senior management or employer made when the harassment was brought to their attention. If the employer did not investigate, intervene, or address the issue, and they were aware of it, they will be liable for a hostile work environment.
In relation to this point, employees are encouraged to speak out against harassment and say that the behavior is unwelcome and must cease. If the harassment continues after this, the employee should report the harassment to management immediately. The hope is that this will put an end to the harassment and create a safe working environment if it does not, then the employer is liable for the hostile workplace.
- Effect on the employee – Because the definition of a hostile workplace is that it affects an employee’s ability to do their job, the EEOC will look at the impact on the employee. The harassment must be such that a reasonable person would say the workplace is abusive, hostile, or intimidating and would affect an employee’s ability or desire to do their job.
Depending on your location, there may be local or state laws against workplace discrimination and harassment. If so, you may bring your case to a local or state court. Research the local procedure for workplace harassment claims.
How Can You Prove A Hostile Work Environment?
The first step is to speak out about the abusive behavior and tell the harasser that their behavior is unwelcome, and they must stop. After that, the conduct must be immediately reported to a supervisor or manager to prevent future harassment.
If the harassment continues or it was a severe incident, read through the legal requirements above to see if your hostile workplace claim will be successful. Keep records of conversations with management about the harassment and what their actions were. If you have written evidence that is ideal, but at the very least you will have notes to jog your memory. If possible, communicate with management about the hostile work environment over email as you will have a written record.
If you report the harassment or hostile work environment via phone or in person, be aware of local and federal laws about wiretapping. In some states, all parties must consent to recordings for them to be admissible. Federal law allows in-person and telephone conversations to be recorded if one of the parties consents.
Could The Employer Be Liable For The Actions of Their Employees?
Not exactly. The employer is only liable for harassment and a hostile workplace if they are aware of the situation. If they failed to rectify, investigate, address the issue, or intervene, then they will be liable.
Reporting harassment to HR and management immediately means that if the situation continues, you will get a larger settlement from your employer than the individual harasser.
What Money Damages Are There In A Hostile Work Environment Claim?
If your hostile workplace claim is successful, you will be compensated for any losses you may have sustained. These can include:
- Emotional distress
- Lost wages
- Lost Backpay and benefits
- Reinstatement of the harassed and termination of the harasser
- Punitive damages (if the employer was the harasser)
Any costs, financial or otherwise, will be rectified by the court.
When Should I File My Hostile Workplace Claim?
As discussed above, the first thing you should do is to ask the harasser to stop their unwanted behavior. Then you should speak to HR and management to make them aware of their illegal behavior and request their help in stopping it.
These two steps are vital in your case. There must be evidence that you reported your problem, where possible, try to report the issue to HR or management via email. That way, the issue is documented. If the harassment still continues, contact the EEOC or your relevant state agency. They can investigate your claim and help you to file a lawsuit.
Will I Need A Lawyer to File A Hostile Work Environment Claim?
You do not need one, but consulting an employment lawyer is in your best interests. They will be able to talk you through your rights and whether or not you have a case. An employment lawyer will also be able to help you through the process of filing a claim with the EEOC or a state agency. They will help you to gather evidence and represent you in court.