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Is Hostile Environment Harassment Illegal? - Know your Rights

Nobody wants to be part of a hostile work environment - but while it is immoral, is hostile environment harassment illegal? What are your rights if you are exposed to sexual harassment? Is there anything that you may do in order to defend yourself? Are you a victim of sexual harassment, or are you the one who creates a hostile work environment? Well, you are about to find the answers to all these questions and more.

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What Is Harassment In the Workplace?

Harassment in the workplace is a type of employment discrimination that violates the civil rights of a person. Some forms of harassment may be illegal, whereas other forms may be less likely to keep a claim. 

A protected class may file a harassment claim, should Title VII cover the clauses. Aspects such as appearance or weight may not fall into the protected classes but may fall under Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). They will investigate the case and determine whether action should be taken or not.

Is It Illegal to Have a Hostile Work Environment?

Hostile work environment - or simply, harassment in the workplace - is a form of discrimination that violates multiple acts, including the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, the Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, as well as the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967. 

As a result, yes, if the activity going around the workplace falls under the label of hostile work environment (such as quid pro quo sexual favors or severe discrimination harassment), then under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, it is considered illegal. 

What Is an Illegal Hostile Work Environment?

An annoyance, petty slight or a simple isolated incident will often not border on the realms of illegality - not unless they are severe or pervasive. It needs to be quite serious in order to be labeled as harassment. 

For a hostile work environment to be considered illegal, certain actions would have to take place. The conduct in question would have to create a work setting that is hostile, intimidating, and even offensive to the reasonable person. 

Harassment becomes illegal if the person filing the claim believes with reasonable cause that the activity is a condition for continued employment or if it creates an abusive or hostile work environment

What Types of Harassment Are Illegal?

Not all types of harassment are illegal. In many circumstances, the legality of harassment depends on the laws of every state. According to Title VII and present laws against harassment, the following types are considered to be illegal: 

Harassment Based on Disability

Workplace harassment that is based on disability is regulated through the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990. It is against the law to harass someone at the workplace, simply because they are using disability benefits. This type of harassment may include patronizing behavior, inappropriate joking, isolation, or refusal to arrange for reasonable accommodation. 

Harassment Based on Race

Racial harassment is a type of harassment that occurs when a person is victimized because of their skin color or their national origin. This can include racial jokes, slurs, racial disgust, or regrading comments.

Title VII protects you against racial discrimination. While one or two mild comments might not fall within the borders of illegal, persistent hostile behavior may be reported. This applies especially if the hostile behavior prevents the harassed from performing at the workplace. 

Power Harassment

Power harassment happens where there is a difference between the power of the harassed and the harasser. An example of power harassment would be a higher-ranked worker bullying a lower-ranked one, making excessive requests, comments that are demeaning, or asking for quid pro quo.   

Retaliation Harassment

Retaliation harassment occurs when someone tries to retaliate against another person for participating in an activity protected by the law. For instance, if an employee reports their employers for failing to adhere to OSHA standards, and the employer retaliates by harassing the employee, then the harassment becomes illegal.

Sexual Harassment

Sexual harassment involves unwanted sexual advances, conduct, or behavior - a type of discrimination that is illegal. For the work environment to be considered hostile and illegal, the conduct must partake in one or more of the following activities:

  • Inappropriate sexual gestures or touching
  • Posting sexual posters
  • Sharing sexual pictures
  • Sexual comments, jokes, or questions
  • Invading another person's private space in a sexual way
Men and women alike may become victims of sexual harassment at the workplace.

Quid Pro Quo Harassment

Quid pro quo sexual harassment is a type of harassment that works based on an exchange. In quid pro quo harassment, a worker may be conditioned into receiving benefits in return for offering sexual favors. Sexual harassment may be either express or implied.  

An example of quid pro quo harassment is when an employer conditions a promotion only in exchange for sexual favors. Similarly, this type of harassment may take the form of a harasser blackmailing a coworker into taking part in a sexual act.

When Is the Employer Liable for Harassment?

The employer is immediately liable for harassment if the negative activity leads to circumstances such as wage loss, failure to hire or promote, or job termination. The employer may avoid liability only in the following circumstances:

  1. They reasonably took the steps to prevent any type of harassment, or at least immediately tried to correct it. 
  2. The harassed employee failed to take advantage of the corrective or preventive opportunities, in a manner that is considered unreasonable.
Whether the employer took preventive measures or the employee failed to take the provided opportunities, the employer must provide proof. EEOC will look at the whole record and set of proof before making a decision. 

The Bottom Line

Hostile working environments are illegal, especially if they are pervasive enough. The law protects people in every state against any type of harassment, provided that proof can be brought to the EEOC. 

Even a single incident can be considered harassment if it compromised the environment at work. This is why people are encouraged to claim their rights, should colleagues or employers attempt to discriminate or harass them at work.