Hostile Work Environment Harassment Laws
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Hostile Work Environment Harassment
Courts have held employers liable for hostile work environment harassment when supervisors:
- Actually knew about the harassment: Examples of when a company actually knew of the harassment include when a person in authority actually observed the harassment, the victim files a formal complaint, or the harassment is widely and openly practiced.
- Could have learned of the harassment: Examples of when a company should have learned of the harassment include when harassment is blatant, employees raised complaints which were ignored, or managers witness conduct which indicates they should make further inquiry.
- Failed to take immediate and appropriate action to correct it: In addition to knowledge of the harassment, the company must have failed to take action in order to be found liable. When the company learns of harassment, it must act promptly, and the action it takes must be effective. An effective remedy is one that will stop the harassment and prevent it from recurring. For example, if a company receives complaints of severe verbal harassment and sends the offender to counseling without any other discipline, the company likely has not devised an effective remedy if the harassment reoccurs.
What Are the Requirements for a Hostile Work Environment Legal Action?
To make a prima facie case for the existence of a hostile work environment, the following elements must be proven:
- There must be actions or behavior that discriminate against a protected classification such as age, religion, disability, or race.
- The behavior or communication must be pervasive, lasting over time, and not limited to an off-color remark or two that a coworker found annoying.
- The hostile behavior, actions, and/or communication must be severe. Not only is it pervasive over time, but the hostility must seriously disrupt the employee’s work.
Can Strict Liability Apply to Hostile Work Environment Harassment?
A small minority of courts take the position that employers can be strictly liable if the harasser is at a senior level and uses his authority to carry out the harassment. They hold that because supervisors (especially those at high levels) can wield power against subordinates and that power was given them by the employer, the employer should be liable when they exercise their power improperly.
What about Company Policies?
A court will be more likely to hold a company liable for hostile work environment harassment if the company fails to enact a harassment policy or enacts an ineffective policy or fails to enforce its policy. Harassment policies often are part of a company's nondiscrimination policy.
On the other hand, if the company has a policy that clearly prohibits harassment, and harassment occurs but is not blatant, a victim who fails to use the internal complaint procedure may have a hard time proving that the company should have been aware of the harassment.
Should I Contact an Employment Attorney?
If you are being harassed at work and feel that nothing is being done about it, you should contact an employment attorney immediately. A harassment lawyer can help explain the law and assert your rights in court if needed.
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Last Modified: 07-11-2014 11:20 AM PDT
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