Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and several other federal acts make it a crime to harass protected classes. You would think that with all this legal protection, you would not have to worry about workplace harassment. However, the unpleasant nature of some of what goes on at work still has people questioning what constitutes harassment and how to fight against it.
Harassment is unwelcome contact, either physical or verbal. The federal act protects employees against harassment that is based on race, sex, religion, nationality, disability, age, or sexual orientation. The laws also protect whistleblowers against retaliation for reporting illegal activity on the job. The unwelcome conduct is considered illegal if it is sufficiently severe to create a hostile work environment, or, if committed by a supervisor, the actions result in a change in the employee's job status or benefits.
Your teammate's snide comment about your red leather skirt and dangling earrings being better suited for an 1980's revival band than for work probably does not constitute harassment unless it interferes with your work or creates a hostile or offensive work environment. Harassment must be against a protected class and be severe enough that the average person would find the remarks threatening. Or, it may be offensive or a part of an ongoing attack that makes it virtually impossible for you to do your job without fearing future attacks.
Examples of harassment include sexual innuendo, racial jokes, disparaging remarks about someone's age or race or passing around sex-related pictures or jokes. Employees who pinch, pat or massage fellow employees may be accused of harassment, and so can anyone who is constantly yelling, cursing or making derogatory comments about a fellow employee or protected class of people. Supervisors who demote someone because that person would not agree to date or who only promotes people of one race or sex may be accused of harassment.
What to Do
If you are a victim of workplace harassment, tell the offender that you find his behavior or language offensive. Often people do not realize their behavior is inappropriate and simply asking them to act differently will end the problem. If not, be prepared to prove harassment is on going. Keep a detailed journal of the occurrences, along with dates, how you were harassed and who may have witnessed the incidents. Report the harassment to your supervisor and use company resources, such as a hotline or employee assistance program, to help you cope with any related stress, fear or anger related to being a victim of workplace harassment.