Workplace harassment has specific legal definitions under federal and state law. Although you may feel your boss or co-workers are rude and demeaning or even bullying, unless their behavior meets the legal guidelines it is not workplace harassment. Workplace harassment must be related to legally protected characteristics as well as severe and pervasive enough to constitute a hostile work environment or it must materially affect your employment status or benefits, such as promotions, demotions or terminations.
Legally, workplace harassment is a form of discrimination. Verbal or physical actions that are based on your race, color, religion, sex, national origin or disability constitute workplace harassment. Other legally protected characteristics include mental and physical disabilities, sexual orientation or retaliation for your actions. When these activities interfere with your ability to do your job effectively, or it creates an intimidating or hostile environment, it is workplace harassment.
Sexual harassment is one type of workplace harassment. Some of the actions that may constitute sexual harassment include touching your body, patting or pinching you, commenting on the size of your breasts or sexual attractiveness of your figure. Other examples include displaying posters, calendars or pictures that are sexual in nature, telling sexually-oriented jokes, or sending sexually oriented emails. Co-workers and managers can be held liable for sexual harassment activities because such actions create a hostile workplace.
Race, Religion and Age
Other types of harassment activities that are non-sexual in nature include using racially derogatory names or phrases, exhibiting pictures that a particular ethnic or religious group might find offensive and commenting about skin color or racial characteristics. Negative comments about a particular religion, religious beliefs or lack of religious beliefs can also constitute workplace harassment. Negative or derogatory comments about an employee’s age are considered harassment if the employee is age 40 or older.
Harassment by a Supervisor
Actions taken by a manager or supervisor must meet specific guidelines to be considered workplace harassment. First, there must be a clear delineation of supervisory responsibilities; the person must be able to make decisions that can affect your pay, working conditions or employment status. If it can be proven that you were denied a promotion because of your race, religion, gender, skin color or a disability, your supervisor is guilty of workplace harassment. If you are female and your company pays you less than a man who is performing the same work, that could be considered workplace harassment because it is a form of discrimination.
Beth Greenwood is an RN and has been a writer since 2010. She specializes in medical and health topics, as well as career articles about health care professions. Greenwood holds an Associate of Science in nursing from Shasta College.