What is Workplace Harassment?
Harassment is defined as any behavior that is offensive, demeaning, belittling, or threatening. It can also include behavior that is hurtful, embarrassing, or that seeks to undermine the person, especially in the workplace. Workplace harassment can involve many different parties, including co-workers, employers, managers, supervisors, staff, and other persons.
With regard to workplace harassment, there are two main types of harassment - sexual harassment and hostile work environment. There may be many variations and types of sexual harassment, but one of the main types is “quid pro quo” harassment.
Quid pro quo sexual harassment in the workplace usually involves a supervisor offering a subordinate employee benefits in exchange for performing a sexual favor (such as a promotion or raise).
Quid pro quo harassment can also include situations where the higher-ranking employee threatens another worker if they refuse to perform the sexual activity. This can include withholding a promotion, terminating or threatening to terminate the employee, removing benefits, and other actions.
Besides quid pro quo and other forms of sexual harassment, the other main type of workplace harassment is hostile work environment. Hostile work environment claims involve conduct or communication that is considered offensive, severe, unwanted or unwelcome, and ongoing or pervasive.
In order to be considered hostile work environment, the behavior must interfere with the victim’s capability to perform their work. It generally goes beyond mere teasing or horseplay or insults. The conduct or activity must be hostile in nature, which means. Hostile work environment cases can also involve other elements, such as discrimination or even sexual harassment.
Consequences of sexual harassment and hostile work environment can be severe. They can lead to legal consequences such as payment of damages, and other consequences such as a loss of employment for the defendant. In particularly severe cases, criminal charges can be brought, which may result in additional penalties such as jail time or criminal fines.
What Laws Protect Employees from Sexual Harassment?
There are various federal and state laws which protect employees from sexual harassment. Such laws provide definitions of harassment, as well as various consequences for the violation. For instance, under federal sexual harassment law, sexual harassment can include conduct such as:
- Deliberate or intentional touching of another’s body, which is unwelcome and does not contribute to the work in any way (this can include brushing up against the person’s body or other conduct);
- Any type of communication which is of a sexual nature and does not contribute to the type of work involved (for instance, forwarding emails with sexual content);
- Pressure or repeated requests for a date, or for sexual activity, especially directed toward a subordinate by a person in authority;
- Displays of obscenity, especially through pictures or videos;
- Various other types of conduct.
Also, state laws may have various definitions for what constitutes sexual harassment. They can include more specific behavior such as:
- Comments on a person’s body or physique;
- Inappropriate or offensive sexual jokes;
- Touching the other person’s clothing;
- Spreading rumors or misinformation about a person’s sexual life;
- Various other types of conduct.
Harassment laws also lay out various employee responsibilities when it comes to workplace harassment. For instance, they may have a responsibility to alert their human resources department of any harassing or inappropriate behavior, especially where the victim’s health, safety, or life are in danger.
What About Non-Work-Related Harassment?
Harassment can of course exist in various settings and contexts besides a work environment. For example, sexual harassment in schools can happen at various grade levels, and can involve similar conduct to workplace harassment. This includes inappropriate touching, advances, jokes, and other behavior.
Harassment can also occur in a manner that violates criminal laws. These can include instances of stalking, and other behavior that invades a person’s privacy. State laws may vary when it comes to criminal harassment laws.
Harassment can also occur in other contexts as well. These include debt collection harassment instances, gender harassment, and telephone harassment cases from telemarketers or debt collectors. These can also be serious, especially in cases where the victim feels that their personal safety is being threatened by the harasser.
Examples of non-workplace related harassment include:
- Repeated, unwanted phone calls;
- Pressure or repeated contact on social media outlets;
- Stalking or following a person constantly and regularly;
- Using various threats or coercive language to obtain a certain goal;
- Issuing threats to a person’s well-being, including threats to their loved ones.
Some cases of harassment can actually rise to a level of assault, battery, or hate crimes, especially in cases where the conduct escalates to a level of violence.
What Should I Know About Filing a Harassment Lawsuit?
Filing a harassment lawsuit can be a complex matter. Here are some points to consider when looking to file a harassment claim:
- There may be filing deadlines and time limits for filing a harassment claim; be sure to take legal action as soon as you suspect a violation has occurred.
- Damages in a sexual harassment case may depend on your ability to provide evidence for the sexual harassment. Be sure to compile as much evidence as you can in preparation for the case, including documents, emails, witness testimony, photos and video, and other items for trial.
- Remedies for a sexual harassment claim can extend beyond a simple damages award; some other remedies may include requiring a change in company harassment policies, removing the offender from their employment position, and other changes at the workplace.
- The accused in a harassment case may have defenses available to them; you should anticipate possible defenses as you prepare. An attorney can help with case strategy.
- Some types of claims may need you to file with a governmental agency or department first before you can file a private civil lawsuit for damages. You may need to consult with an attorney to determine what your initial steps must be.
Do I Need a Lawyer If I am Dealing with Harassment?
Harassment laws can be complex and will vary from state to state. If you need assistance with any type of harassment legal issues, whether it’s in the workplace or at home, you may wish to hire a lawyer in your area. Your attorney can instruct you on how to prepare for your case, and can represent you during important court processes.