HR 101: Just What Constitutes Workplace Harassment?

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Apr 28, 2014

What is workplace harassment, anyway?

This might sound like a question with a simple answer, but like most human resource issues, it’s not always easy to answer.

The U.S. Department of Labor answers the question of what is workplace harassment in detail, and breaks it down to two basic categories of harassment.

  • Quid Pro Quo (This for that) – This is when an employment decision is based on an employee’s acceptance or rejection of unwelcome requests. Sometimes this takes the form of a supervisor asking a subordinate for certain things in return for better hours, higher pay or a promotion. It could range from attending certain events with the supervisor, participating in religious activities or sometimes making themselves sexually available.
  • Hostile Work Environment – This is often the result of co-workers, supervisors, contractors, or customers that an employee interacts with, whose actions render the workplace to be offensive, intimidating or hostile. This can involve telling crude, off color, or racist jokes, unnecessary touching, sabotaging another person’s work and crude and indecent gestures, discussing sexual activities among other things.

Companies need specific policies

For the harassment to be unlawful, it must be unwelcome and based on the victim’s protected status (race, gender, etc.). Other factors to consider are the severity and frequency of the conduct, whether the victim felt threatened and/or humiliated, whether the harassment affected the victim’s work performance and whether the perpetrator was a superior or not.

The Labor Department recommends that places of employment institute policies that prohibit harassment even before it rises to the level in which it violates the law.

In this case, harassment is defined as any verbal or physical conduct that is not welcomed by the recipient, especially if it is based on protected status such as race or gender. It should either adversely affect work performance and/or employment has to be contingent on acceptance of the harassment.

This was originally published on the Genesis HR Solutions blog.

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