We live in a time where you have to be very careful what you say, especially when at work. Long gone are the days when adults could playfully flirt at work, exchange clever quips, tell racy jokes, and gossip with coworkers during breaks. We live in a time when everyone has to be aware of what they say and how they behave, especially while in the workplace.
With the #metoo movement in full swing, and courageous victims of sexual misconduct coming forward in droves, if you’ve not yet made yourself aware of what constitutes workplace harassment, now is the time. What you may consider an innocent comment, or even a compliment, could very well be legally defined as “harassment.”
Two Types of Workplace Harassment
Workplace harassment on the basis of someone’s “legally protected status” (gender, race, ethnicity, religion, etc.) is a form of discrimination that is illegal in all 50 states under both state and federal laws. Laws distinguish between two types of harassment: quid pro quo harassment and “hostile work environment” harassment. The Latin phrase, quid pro quo, when used with “harassment” refers to any employment decision based on the employee’s acceptance or denial of unwanted sexual advances or requests for sexual favors in exchange of some type of workplace advantage (promotion, raise, or special privileges). One egregious example of common quid pro quo harassment is when a boss requests or demands a sexual favor in exchange for a raise or promotion.
Quid pro quo harassment may take place even when the “reward” for accepting the sexual advance is not so crystal clear as a promotion or a raise. A boss may insinuate that work would be less stressful in exchange for sexual contact, or an employee may be offered some type of privilege (time off from work or permission to leave early) in exchange for sex. Quid pro quo harassment is always sexual in nature, but “hostile work environment” harassment can be discrimination against gender, age, race, religion, or some other legally protected status and does not need to be sexual in nature.
“Hostile work environment” is an umbrella term for many different inappropriate workplace behaviors by anyone in the workplace including managers and supervisors all the way down the ladder to low-level employees. Many types of unwanted attention may constitute the creation of a hostile work environment; it may even include misconduct of customers and other non-employees that is condoned by a person in a supervisory position. When someone’s inappropriate conduct creates an intimidating, offensive, or hostile environment in the workplace, harassment has taken place.
Some examples of hostile work environment harassment include:
- Repeated and unwanted communication via phone, email, text, social media posts, etc.
- Asking someone out on a date repeatedly after getting a “No”
- Making someone the target of jokes
- Leaving someone out of decisions and discussions
- Giving unwanted gifts
- Unwanted touching of any kind; even hugging or a pat on the shoulder can be inappropriate
- Commenting on physical appearance, abilities, and personality
Keep in mind that context and occurrence are very important when determining whether someone is being harassed by its legal definition. Complimenting someone on a new blouse may be innocent when offered up once in a blue moon, but constantly leering at a woman’s chest and making repeated references to her clothing would most likely constitute harassment. A white elephant gift exchange is not harassment, but leaving gifts on a daily, weekly, or even monthly basis on a coworker’s desk may be deemed workplace harassment.
Most companies, large and small, have clearly defined workplace harassment guidelines in place. If you feel you’ve been the victim of workplace harassment, you will need a lawyer, and if you have been accused of workplace harassment, you will need a lawyer. The best advice is to err on the side on caution and just behave appropriately at work. Do not say anything to a coworker that you would not want said to someone you love, and do not do anything at work to make a colleague uncomfortable.