Before launching on a discussion about unlawful harassment it is important to clearly establish the meaning of the term. Unlawful harassment is a form of discrimination of an employee which is in direct violation of
- The Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967
- The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990,
It is an unlawful targeting and distressing of an employee or a group of persons based on any of the following factors
- Marital status
- Sexual orientation
- Trade union affiliations
- Disability and
- Other such factors
The anti-discrimination legislation clearly lays down all the factors, based on which a person should not be discriminated or denied his rights. Harassment becomes illicit when the following things occur
- Enduring this treatment is laid down as a must to continue on the job
- Such conducts render the working environment to be hostile, menacing or offensive.
Also there are laws which prohibit individuals being tormented because they filed a discrimination complaint or testifying on a case filed. Minor annoyances or rare misbehaviors would not account to unlawful harassment unless they are very serious.
Some of the examples of offensive behavior are as follows
- Distasteful jokes
- Improper choice of words
- Interfering with job
- Physical assaults
- Sending explicit sexual messages
- Posing intrusively personal questions
- Taunts on a person’s religion or ethnicity
- Isolating an individual or a group of persons
- Psychological harassment etc.
The harasser need not necessarily be the direct supervisor of the victim. He can be a supervisor of some other department, a colleague and also a non-employee. The victim can be somebody else from the person who is being harassed and the harassment may or may not result in economic or physical strain.
Types of harassment
There are a lot of behaviors which are termed as unlawful harassment and these activities can be broadly classified into sexual and non-sexual harassment.
It is the most common type of harassment that is seen in work places. Sexual harassment is not limited to inappropriate physical advances. It also includes unwarranted comments or messages regarding gender, sexuality or sexual inclinations. The offender can be an employer, supervisor, co-worker, client or any other person who contributes to an intimidating and unhealthy work environment.
The following are examples of some actions that would be termed as sexual harassment
- Sending pornographic or sexually explicit images or videos
- Sharing suggestive messages via email or letters
- Inappropriate gesturing
- Displaying pornographic posters in a work environment
- Inappropriate touching, patting or any such movements
- Sharing lewd jokes
- Passing comments on clothing or looks
- Offensive remarks on a person’s gender
- Asking questions about an individual’s sex life
Other offensive acts that create an intimidating or hostile work environment are considered to be non-sexual harassment. Any actions based on religion, ethnicity or color will be considered illegal if the employee is not selected for the job or a promotion or transfer because of that. Some examples of non-sexual harassment are as given below
- Using racist nicknames or slur
- Offensive comments on a person’s disability
- Forcing somebody to change their religious beliefs
- Remarks on a person’s color or ethnicity
- Having racist posters in a work place
- Remarks mocking a person’s age
- Wearing clothing which are offensive to a particular group of people (like wearing a T shirt with offensive words about a religion)
- Sharing offensive images or videos
On any interview or selection process the interviewer should never pose questions about a candidate’s sexual orientation, marital status or ethnic background.
Employer or managers have the following responsibility to prevent unlawful harassment in work place.
- Addressing a behavior that could be offensive and detrimental to an amicable work environment.
- Ensuring that the victim’s complaint is attended to and resolved quickly.
- Offering a supportive environment so that the victim’s interest are protected and he/she is not alienated or further harassed
- Ensuring sensitive treatment of the situation
- Forming strict guidelines to prevent such harassments taking place.
- Putting an effective grievance addressing system in place.
Liability of an employer
An employer is held liable for harassment performed by the supervisors of his company. This is mainly to ensure that an employer takes proper preventive measures, to provide a harassment free environment to his employees. He can avoid liability only on the wake of any of the following conditions:
- He took timely and reasonable steps to stop the supervisor from harassing the employee and he has proof of it.
- The employee did not use the opportunities provided by the management to complain against or avoid the harassment, without any proper reason.
Employer initiatives required to curb unlawful harassment
- Devise a clear policy: An employer should lay down clear-cut norms to be followed to prevent unlawful harassment. The policy should include
- Definition for harassment and how it would be detrimental to the organization
- A clear message that harassment would not be acceptable in any forms
- The employees should be educated about the anti-discrimination act and the rights he/she has under it
- A detailed information on how to file an official complaint on harassment
- Procedures of bringing the complaint to the employer’s notice
- The action that would be taken on any employee who indulges in harassment
- An assurance that the complaints would be handled swiftly, sensitively and secretively
- The chain of command which states to whom the complaint should be lodged and if that person does not act, whom should the employee contact next.
- The name, phone number and emails of the persons in charge of attending to harassment complaints
- An assurance that the offenders will be dealt with impartially
- Create awareness: An employer should ensure that the people who work under him are aware of their rights and the laws governing harassment at work. This can be done through staff meetings and seminars or through a separate harassment training session. He should provide all the materials that would aid in educating the employees, to handle harassment situations appropriately.
- Display the policy statement in a visible area: The management or the HR department should ensure that the policy statement is seen by all the staff members. To achieve this they can distribute it as pamphlets during training and orientation session of the induction program or stick it on the notice board.
- Appoint a proper authority to deal with harassment problems: The employees should know whom to bring their complaints to. So the employer should appoint a separate person from the HR department to deal to harassment complaints and communicate the appointment to the employees.
- Devise a clear role for the complaint officer: The complaint officer should be able to understand that, dealing with unlawful harassment is not like just another grievance handling and should be dealt with immediately. Some complaints may be very sensitive and at times even embarrassing and the complaint officer should be able to address them with tact and sensitivity. He should be a person respected by others and known for his dignity and impartiality. His appointment should be made known to everyone and they should be given the assurance that he can be approached easily.
- Outcome of the investigation: If the complaint is found valid and the person have been found harassed, he is entitled to receive compensation such as
- Counseling fees
- Medical fees
- Removal of detrimental comments from the official records
- Reassessment of his work if the performance appraisal had been found to be partial
- Leave during the investigation of the complaint
- Transfer from the current workplace if he desires so
- A public apology from the harasser
Unlawful harassment not only does affect the victim psychologically and causes huge distress to him but also affects his ability to perform his duties properly. The company too suffers from loss of productivity, dissatisfied employees and a serious damage to its reputation. So an employer should take all the measures possible to keep this evil practice out his work place.
- U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Harassment. Retrieved from http://www.eeoc.gov/laws/practices/harassment.cfm
- Workplace harassment. Retrieved from http://www.strategichr.com/shrsweb2/harassment_01.shtml
- Alison Doyle. About.com guide Types of Harassment. Retrieved from http://jobsearch.about.com/od/harassment/qt/How-To-File-A-Harassment-Claim.htm