Harassment in the workplace

Awareness is your first line of defence

A reputable workplace will make sure its policies on harassment, sexual or otherwise, are well spelled out, generally in several places, so there is no mistake on the part of any employee. Despite that, many people may be confused about what constitutes harassment in the workplace and what steps to take if it occurs.

According to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, "unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature constitutes sexual harassment when submission to or rejection of this conduct explicitly or implicitly affects an individual's employment, unreasonably interferes with an individual's work performance or creates an intimidating, hostile or offensive work environment."

The victim can be either male or female, and the harasser can be a co-worker, a supervisor and even a non-employee. The key is that the harasser's conduct must be unwelcome.

Prof. Eugene Volokh of UCLA School of Law, in "The Definition of 'Hostile Work Environment' Harassment," defined two types of harassment, quid pro quo harassment and hostile work environment harassment. The first harassment is straightforward; it is a supervisor using his or her position to extort sexual favors.

The second type, hostile work environment, is more complicated. Volokh defines it as speech or conduct this is:
  • "severe or pervasive" enough to
  • create a "hostile or abusive work environment"
  • based on race, religion, sex, national origin, age, disability, veteran status, or, in some jurisdictions, sexual orientation, political affiliation, citizenship status, marital status or personal appearance
  • for the plaintiff and for a reasonable person.

    There are state and federal laws that protect employees from sexual harassment on the job. The EEOC also recommends employers do their best to prevent harassment by making clear it will not be tolerated and outlining unacceptable behaviors. The agency also recommends that the company have an established complaint process, and investigate those complaints, taking action where appropriate.

    If you believe you are the victim of harassment, the EEOC says you can confront the harasser and tell them to stop; you should use your employer's grievance system to lodge a complaint.

    According to nolo.com, confronting your harasser may be the most effective way to get the behavior to stop - some experts say it works up to 90 percent of the time. If that doesn't work, try a written request to stop the behavior. Next, escalate it to a supervisor. Follow your company's sexual harassment policy, if they have one, and document the incidents and your actions.

    You can also file a discrimination complaint with the EEOC. Charges may be filed in person, by mail or by telephone by contacting the nearest EEOC office. Be sure you do so with the guidelines provided: "Title VII of the Civil Rights Act (Title VII) charges must be filed with EEOC within 180 days of the alleged discriminatory act. However, in states or localities where there is an antidiscrimination law and an agency authorized to grant or seek relief, a charge must be presented to that state or local agency. Furthermore, in such jurisdictions, you may file charges with EEOC within 300 days of the discriminatory act, or 30 days after receiving notice that the state or local agency has terminated its processing of the charge, whichever is earlier," according to the EEOC web site, www.eeoc.gov. If you have any questions about your legal rights, consult a lawyer.

    Sources: "The Definition of 'Hostile Work Environment' Harassment," by Prof. Eugene Volokh of UCLA School of Law; U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission; nolo.com.

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