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What Is Workplace Harassment—Understanding the Limitations of the Law

What Is Workplace Harassment—Understanding the Limitations of the Law

Toxic work environments are nothing new. In truth, most employees today have had to deal with some type of harassment at work or an unproductive workplace environment at one point or another. Yet, what stops many of these employees from getting the help they need in these situations is the fear that they will get in trouble for reporting this harassment, or they are unsure what constitutes workplace harassment and what does not.

To help clear- up this confusion, we have prepared the following blog post. In it, we will delve into details about what constitutes workplace harassment and under what circumstances an employee can pursue legal action against those who committed this harassment.

What Is Workplace Harassment?

Workplace harassment is a type of employment discrimination that breaches the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 (ADEA), the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA), and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. In California, the Fair Employment and Housing Act protects workers from facing discrimination and harassment in the workplace.

Generally, this harassment can be defined as any unwelcome conduct that is based on color, religion, sex (including gender identity, pregnancy, and sexual orientation), race, national origin, age (starting at the age of 40), or genetic information (such as medical history). However, workplace harassment becomes illegal when:

  • The offensive conduct becomes a condition of continued employment
  • The harassment is so pervasive that it creates work conditions that a reasonable person would consider abusive, intimidating, or hostile
  • A supervisor’s harassment leads to an apparent change in the employee’s status or salary

Different Types of Workplace Harassment

Workplace harassment is not limited to sexual harassment. It can include many different behaviors and actions, including offensive slurs, name-calling, jokes, physical assaults, threats, ridicule, intimidation, insults, and lewd photos. Plus, the harasser can be anyone at work, including a boss, co-worker, or supervisor in another department, and even a non-employee, such as a client or a customer.

Further, the victim of workplace harassment does not necessarily have to be the individual being harassed. Victims include any person who is affected by the harassing behavior.

It is also critical, however, to realize that not all unpleasant behavior experienced at work qualifies as unlawful workplace harassment. According to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), isolated incidents, petty annoyances, and slights will not rise to the level of illegal workplace harassment. Instead, for these actions to be considered unlawful, the conduct must create a work environment that is hostile, intimidating, or offensive to a reasonable person.

Common Examples of What Constitutes Illegal Workplace Harassment and What Does Not

Due to the complexities of these regulations, it may be challenging to determine what is workplace harassment and what is not according to the law. Below we will go over some examples that hopefully will clear things up.

Unlawful Workplace Harassment

  • An individual’s boss continues to reference their country of origin and characterizes their work negatively based on their heritage.
  • A co-worker sends an email to the whole office every week, making jokes about people over the age of 50.
  • An employee is asked by their boss numerous times to go out with them to happy hour. The boss then proceeds to tell the employee that they could go a long way in the company if they take them up on the offer.
  • A worker with a disability is mimicked by their supervisor because of their disability, such as the way they talk or walk. The supervisor also tells the employee’s co-workers that the worker is incompetent because of their disability.

By contrast, there are many workplace behaviors which are unfair and even unethical, but not illegal. If, for example, a co-worker tries to get another employee in trouble with their boss because for a petty non-discriminatory reason, the situation may be unfair, but it does not meet the legal definition of unlawful workplace harassment. Or, if a boss of supervisor frequently screams and is an overall jerk, it’s not pleasant, and it may be unjustified, that it does not constitute unlawful workplace harassment by itself.

Stand-Up to Workplace Harassment With an Experienced Employment Attorney

If you suffered workplace harassment and believe you have a legal claim, do not wait any longer to get the legal help you need. When you work with an experienced employment attorney, these lawyers can promptly get to work, evaluating your claim and figuring out if you have a viable case. In addition, they can:

  • Go over your legal options and help you determine which one you should pursue
  • Interpret and educate you about laws protecting employees against unlawful actions by their employers
  • Fight for the justice and damages you deserve

That is why if you need to speak to a legal professional about your workplace harassment, you should contact a knowledgeable employment lawyer today for a free case consultation, and let them show you how they can protect your rights.

Author Bio

Michael Malk is the Founder and Managing Attorney of Malk Law Firm, a Seattle employee rights law firm he started in 2007. With more than 20 years of experience practicing law, he has dedicated his career to representing clients throughout California and Washington in a wide range of legal areas, including unpaid wages, sexual harassment, discrimination, wrongful termination, and other employee rights matters.

Michael received his Juris Doctor from the University of California— Davis School of Law and is a member of the State Bar of California, the State Bar of Washington, and the American Bar Association. He has received numerous accolades for his work, including being named as one of the “Top Attorneys in Southern California” by Los Angeles Magazine in 2018 and being selected as a Super Lawyer for six consecutive years.

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