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Harassment and discrimination represent some of the most serious and pervasive problems in workplaces today. In addition to being personally damaging to employees, harassment problems decrease workplace morale, undermine productivity, increase turnover, and create significant legal liabilities. The news cycle always contains multiple examples of otherwise successful companies and people whose progress has been hampered by harassment issues.

Compliance with laws prohibiting harassment in the workplace is crucial. Federal laws providing protections against harassment include Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA), the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), the Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA), and the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act (GINA). State laws offer numerous other protections for vulnerable groups of people. These laws all view harassment as a form of discrimination.

Harassment can take many forms. Constant unequal treatment of employees or co-workers based on their race, gender, age, or other protected characteristics is a straight-forward example of unlawful workplace harassment. Such treatment could range from differing job expectations to the manner in which interpersonal interactions are conducted. Two of the most common harassment issues that arise, particularly with regard to sexual harassment, are hostile work environments and quid pro quo sexual harassment.

A hostile work environment exists when unwelcome behavior or remarks: (1) relate to an employee’s protected status; (2) are severe or pervasive; and (3) interfere with the employee’s ability to perform his or her job. Verbal and nonverbal conduct can both constitute hostile work environment harassment depending on the actions themselves and the overall circumstances.

Verbal conduct, such as gossip, jokes, slurs, requests for dates, and inappropriate “compliments” can give rise to a hostile work environment. Nonverbal conduct, such as touching, staring, and invasions of personal space, can also implicate hostile work environment concerns. The serious consequences for inappropriate behavior in the workplace make it unwise to engage in behavior that crosses into or approaches unprofessionalism.

Quid pro quo sexual harassment is also a form of discrimination. Such harassment occurs when an employee is told, implicitly or explicitly, that some aspect of employment is conditioned on submission to another’s sexual advances. Quid pro quo harassment can take the form of threats, such as a threat of loss of employment, or offers of benefits, such as promotions or raises. Both forms of quid pro quo harassment constitute unlawful discrimination.

Organizations and their employees should both take proactive steps to avoid harassment issues. Organizations should formulate and publicize strong policies and rules against harassment, explain that employees will not be retaliated against for raising harassment concerns, and promptly investigate and address any harassment problems that do arise. Employees, on the other hand, should comply with those policies and always be mindful of how their conduct affects others around them. These steps can help ensure that harassment does not become a problem for you or your workplace.

Key Resources

For your convenience, ACC has compiled the following key resources to assist you in your compliance efforts.

For more try searching ACC's online library for "Discrimination and Harassment"

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