Harassment is a form of employment discrimination that violates Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA) of 1967 and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990.

Harassment can be defined as unwelcome behavior that is based on race, color, religion, sex, national origin, age (in those 40 or older), disability or genetics.

Anti-discrimination laws also prohibit harassment against individuals by an employer in retaliation for opposing practices within the company that they believe to be discriminatory, filing a discrimination charge and testifying or participating in any way in an investigation against the employer.

Unlawful harassment

Harassment becomes unlawful when either enduring the offensive conduct becomes a condition of continued employment or the conduct is severe enough to create a work environment that a reasonable person would consider intimidating, hostile, or abusive.

It is important to note that the conduct must create a work environment that would be intimidating, hostile, or offensive to reasonable people – petty incidents and annoyances cannot rise to the level of being considered illegal.

Offensive conduct

The following are considered offensive conduct (this list is not necessarily all inclusive):

  • Offensive jokes, slurs and insults

  • Offensive nicknames

  • Intimidation

  • Physical assault or threats

  • Ridicule or mockery

  • Offensive objects or pictures

  • Interference with work performance

Circumstances for harassment

Harassment can occur in a variety of circumstances such as:

  • The harasser can be the victim’s direct supervisor, a supervisor in another area, an agent of the employer, a co-worker, or a non-employee

  • The victim does not have to be the person directly harassed – they can be anyone affected by the offensive conduct

How to handle harassment in the workplace

The employer is liable for harassment by a supervisor or non-supervisory employees or non-employees over whom they have control that results in a negative employment outcome for the victim such as termination, failure to promote or hire, and loss of wages.

The employer can only avoid liability if they can prove that they reasonably tried to prevent and correct the harassing behavior and the victim failed to take advantage of preventive or corrective opportunities provided by the employer.

Prevention is by far the best option to eliminate harassment in the workplace.

Employers should clearly communicate to employees that harassing behavior will not be tolerated.

This can be achieved by establishing an effective complaint or grievance process, providing anti-harassment training to all employees, and taking immediate and appropriate action when an employee complains.

Employees should be encouraged to inform the harasser directly that the conduct is unwelcome and must stop. Employees should also report harassment to management at an early stage to prevent its escalation.