You may have the feeling you’re being harassed at work, but you’re not sure whether you have an actual legal claim. There can be a difference between what one individual employee feels is harassment and what constitutes illegal harassment under federal, state and local laws. Merely being bothered by a supervisor or co-worker, while unfortunate for an employee, does not necessarily mean you have a legal claim for harassment. Workplace harassment has a very specific definition under the law. We’ll discuss that definition and give some common examples of harassment in the workplace.
If you have experienced what you believe to be harassment at your job, these examples can help you understand some of the types of harassment that lead to a legal claim. If you’d like more guidance on your rights, contact Eisenberg & Baum. We have an experienced group of employment discrimination attorneys who are ready to help and advocate on your behalf.
Harassment can be a form of employment discrimination under various federal, state and local laws. In order to be considered discrimination, the harassment must be based on some protected trait. Under federal law, those traits include race, color, national origin, gender, pregnancy, age, religion, disability, and genetic information. Many state and local governments have enacted similar anti-discrimination laws, like New York State’s Human Rights Law, which prohibits discrimination on grounds similar to those protected under federal law as well as sexual orientation, marital status, gender identity, arrest and conviction record, military status or service, observance of Sabbath, political activities, unemployment status, and status as a victim of domestic violence.
Illegal workplace harassment occurs when an employee suffers unwanted conduct based on a protected trait and either the employee had to endure the conduct in order to keep their job or the conduct was so severe and pervasive it created a hostile work environment. Typically, isolated incidents of unwanted conduct and petty slights won’t be enough to rise to the level of harassment prohibited under anti-discrimination laws, though that’s not a hard and fast rule. Some conduct can be so severe on its own that even one incident can create a legal claim of workplace harassment. The examples we provide below tend to focus on the more common situation where an employee is subjected to continued unwelcome conduct over an extended period of time.
Harassment can come in many forms and from many sources. The harassing conduct can be verbal or physical and the harasser can be a co-worker, supervisor or even an non-employee like a customer or contractor.
Possibly the most common behavior that comes to mind when you think of workplace harassment is verbal harassment.
Verbal harassment can include jokes, innuendos, slurs, name-calling and insults, among other things. A recent discrimination case settled between the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and an Arizona-based aviation services company provides a good example of the type of verbal conduct that can create a workplace harassment claim. In that case, an employee of the company claimed he was harassed based on his national origin (Turkish/Palestinian) and religion (Islam). The employee alleged that his supervisor made insulting remarks to him, including that he "dressed like [he was] gonna blow up the World Trade Center," and made derogatory jokes about Arabs. Despite the fact that the employee reported this conduct to his employer, the employer did nothing to stop it and the employee eventually resigned. The company eventually settled the case for $50,000.
Though physical harassment is less common than verbal harassment, it can often be more severe.
Physical conduct, like hitting, pushing, groping and other touching, can be present in any number of harassment claims, but is often associated with sexual harassment. For example, in a sexual harassment case filed by the EEOC against Red Lobster, several female employees alleged their manager created a hostile work environment by, among other conduct, physically harassing them. The conduct included the manager pressing himself against the employees as well as grabbing and groping them. Again, the employees complained to their employer, but no action was taken. After the EEOC filed suit on the employees’ behalf, Red Lobster agreed to pay $160,000 in damages and make other changes at its restaurant to avoid similar incidents in the future.
Harassment can be most intimidating when it comes from a supervisor.
Supervisors can use their position of authority to subject employees to discriminatory conduct, leaving the employee feeling trapped and vulnerable. In another sexual harassment case, brought by a female employee of UBS Financial Services, a manager and UBS Vice President allegedly harassed the employee over a period of several years with repeated inappropriate sexual comments, remarks about her body, explicit emails and phone calls to the employee’s home. The employee complained to her employer, but instead of getting relief from the harassment, she was ultimately fired. The employee filed a lawsuit against UBS and received an award of $8.4 million.
While co-workers may not have the same level of authority over an employee, they can also create an intimidating work environment for employees that is just as unlawful as harassing conduct of a supervisor.
A case brought by the EEOC against a North Carolina trucking company in 2011 exemplified the type of hostile work environment case that can be created by the discriminatory actions of co-workers. The EEOC brought the case on behalf of two African-American employees, alleging their employer had allowed a racially hostile work environment to exist. According to the EEOC, that environment was created, in large part, by co-workers who made derogatory and threatening comments to the employees, used racial slurs and even displayed a noose in the workplace. The jury in that case agreed that the employees had been harassed based on their race and awarded them a total of $200,000 in damages.
The examples of unlawful workplace harassment don’t end with what we’ve listed above. In some cases, there is a mixture of unwelcome conduct (both verbal and physical) and harassers (supervisors, co-workers and others) that ultimately creates a discriminatory environment for an employee. Each case of workplace harassment is unique and whether it rises to a level of illegal discrimination is based on the specific facts of the case. If you’d like to discuss the facts of your own employment harassment claim with an experienced attorney, please contact us. We can discuss the merits of your case and advise you on your next steps. We offer free initial consultations for sexual harassment claims and bill on a contingent fee basis, so you won’t have to pay us unless we win your case.