Determining if harassment is illegal

| Jun 2, 2021 | Harassment At Work

A negative work environment can make every area of life less enjoyable, and it can even cause serious physical and mental health issues. While anyone should be able to go to a supervisor or human resources department and discuss ways to eliminate negativity in the workplace, in some cases, workers may have the option to take the matter further.

The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission will investigate complaints to determine whether a matter is illegal harassment.

Is it based on discrimination?

Harassment such as bullying is not necessarily illegal unless the victim is a member of a protected class and the behavior focuses on that, such as:

  • Making racial slurs or degrading comments about skin color or an accent
  • Refusing tolerance toward a religious custom or pressure to convert from a religion
  • Isolating a worker with a disability or a pregnant worker
  • Excluding an older worker from training activities or meetings
  • Displaying images or making jokes that degrade people of a certain gender or sexual orientation

Antidiscrimination laws such as the Americans with Disabilities Act, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act and the Pregnancy Discrimination Act provide protection from harassment.

Is it a hostile work environment?

A single comment or an isolated incident is probably not illegal, even if it is offensive and the employer never properly deals with it. However, if the conduct is severe and intense enough to create a work environment that anyone would agree is hostile or offensive, then it likely does rise to the level of illegal harassment.

If the worker follows the protocols for reporting and the company will not deal with the behavior, filing a complaint with the EEOC may be the worker’s next option.