You go into work each morning, and see your co-worker's less-than-modest artwork of her favorite male models lining the walls of her cubicle. Although you may not be offended by the early morning eye candy, someone else may classify this as a hostile work environment. Many regulations are in place to protect employees from harassment in the workplace, even when it may not initially appear to be hostile or threatening.
According to the Federal Communications Commission, "Hostile workplace harassment occurs when unwelcome comments or conduct based on sex, race, or other legally protected characteristics unreasonably interferes with an employee's work performance or creates an intimidating, hostile or offensive work environment." Harassment can occur between any two individuals: managers, co-workers, workplace visitors or vendors. Hostile workplace regulations are in place to prevent harassment and illegal activities. The "other characteristics" mentioned by the FCC include race, color, sex, religion, gender identity, national origin, age -- 40 and over -- mental or physical disability, sexual orientation and retaliation.
A hostile work environment can paint a variety of different pictures for employees. From lewd emails or verbal statements from a co-worker, to an offensive poster or picture visible in the neighboring cubicle, to comments about a person's race or gender, the hostile work environment comes in many shapes and sizes. For men and women working together, this can be a very thin line for many individuals to walk along, as comments that may not be intended as discriminatory or harassing could be perceived by another individual as such. According to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), "Harassment is a form of employment discrimination that violates Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 (ADEA), and the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA)." These regulations hold employers and employees accountable for unlawful discrimination.
In order for hostile workplace environment to be punishable by law, it must be defined as both unwelcome and based on the victim's protected status. The harassing conduct must be provably severe and pervasive enough that a reasonable person would determine the actions to be considered hostile or abusive. The federal regulations against harassment are outlined in Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 as well as the Civil Rights Act of 1991. In these acts, the law outlines what is and is not harassment. Employers are encouraged by the EEOC to have anti-harassment policies in place, as well as training supervisors on harassment. Employers are required to post the federal and state labor laws regarding harassment in a location accessible to all employees, and employers are also required in some states to provide training for supervisors on sexual harassment policies.
If harassment is severe and pervasive, as defined by federal and state regulations, the employee has a right to file a claim with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Whenever discrimination is found, the EEOC will attempt to restore the employment conditions of the victim that would exist if the harassment had not occurred. For instance, EEOC may rule that an employer found guilty of harassment in the workplace should pay monetary damages, restore the employee to his former position within the company, and provide back pay and benefits for the time lost from work.
Jennifer Burton is a human resources professional based in California. She holds an M.A. in American studies from California State University, Fullerton.