What Is Considered Workplace Harassment?

By Tonia Williams

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Federal anti-discrimination laws such as the Civil Rights Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act make it unlawful for an entity to discriminate against a person based on a protected status. Under federal anti-discrimination laws, harassment is considered a form of discrimination. According to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), the federal agency that investigates allegations of workplace harassment, specific elements must exist in order for incidents to meet the definition of harassment.

Offensive Conduct

Offensive conduct may be in the form of comments or physical actions. Examples of offensive comments include mocking a person’s accent, racial slurs and derogatory remarks about a group of people. Physical actions that may be considered harassment are displaying a racially offensive symbol in the workplace or at an employee’s work station, or mocking a disabled person’s physical impairment.

Protected Status

Federal anti-discrimination laws provide protection from harassment based on age, religion, color, national origin, gender and disability. An employee may allege harassment based on one or more protected categories, such as being black or a black woman. Additionally an employee in a protected category may harass another employee who is part of the same protected category based on differences that exist. For example, a lighter-skinned black employee may harass a darker-skinned black employee because of differences in skin color.

Severe and Pervasive

The EEOC takes the stance that isolated incidents and offhand comments do not constitute harassment. The offensive conduct or comments must occur on a regular and consistent basis and be overbearing. For example, if employees mock another employee’s accent on a daily basis, the behavior could be considered severe and pervasive.

Hostile Work Environment

A hostile work environment refers to any change that results in an alteration of an employee’s mood or behavior based upon the conduct. An example is an employee refusing to take a work break for fear of being humiliated and teased in the break room. Additionally, if an employee begins to feel isolated from other employees or avoids going certain places in the company to avoid being targeted, he may show evidence of a hostile work environment.

Adverse Action

According to the EEOC, adverse actions constitute another element of workplace harassment. An adverse employment action is any negative change in the conditions of employment, such as firing or laying off an employee, or denying her training opportunities. For example, a female employee who is subjected to sexist remarks and then is later denied a training opportunity that was granted to male employees may be able to prove a connection between the adverse action and the offensive remarks.

About the Author

Tonia Williams has been a freelance writer since 2008. She has more than 10 years of professional experience as a teacher, civil rights/EEOC investigator, data analyst, grievance officer, child-welfare specialist and diversity consultant. Williams received her Bachelor of Arts in criminal justice from Western Michigan University.

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