Most of us are familiar with sexual harassment in the workplace, but when it comes to harassment and discrimination, it’s not just about sex anymore. And it never was, quite frankly. In reality, laws prohibiting discrimination and harassment in the workplace go far beyond just sexual harassment.
There are typically three types of harassment.
- Verbal — includes things said, written or unlawful (offensive) sounds
- Physical — includes hitting, pushing, blocking someone’s way, unlawful touching, leering
- Visual — includes calendars, pictures, graffiti, emails, any document containing unlawful content and any object that represents unlawful content that can be clearly seen
Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, sex, religion, national origin, color and pregnancy. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has stated that all employees have a right to work in an environment free from unlawful discrimination and harassment. This means that organizations and, in some cases, employees, can be held liable for any behavior that is considered illegal discrimination or harassment.
In addition to the protected classes in Title VII, there are other federal, state and local laws and regulations that offer additional protections from discrimination and harassment. For example, depending on where you live, it may be illegal to harass or discriminate against someone based on:
- Disability (including obesity)
- Military Membership or Veteran Status
- Sexual Orientation or Gender Identity
- Political Affiliation
- Criminal Record
- Prior Psychiatric Treatment
- Citizenship Status
- Personal Appearance
- Tobacco Use Outside of Work
- Receipt of Public Assistance
- Dishonorable Discharge from the Military
- Wage Garnishments
Another important term to know is the definition of a hostile work environment. A hostile work environment occurs when unlawful behavior due to a protected status is so severe or pervasive that it is intimidating, hostile or abusive to a reasonable person and makes it difficult to function on the job.
Also keep in mind that nothing in the law limits harassment to behavior that occurs in what we might consider the formal work environment. For example, hostile work environment harassment can occur at an organization- sponsored picnic, anywhere on company property or even a restaurant at lunchtime.
There are several types of behavior that can lead to harassment and discrimination in the workplace. As we have just learned, harassment is any kind of behavior that is severe or pervasive enough to create a hostile work environment due to a protected status. And discrimination can be based on many things from race or religion, to sexual orientation or disability.
In other words, it’s not just about sex anymore. It never was and it shouldn’t be. We all have the right to be able to come to work and focus on productive things and do our job. What this means to us is that we need to keep ourselves in line and speak up if we know that someone else is a target of harassment or discrimination. Not just because it’s the law, but because it’s the right thing to do!
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