When many think of a workplace harasser, they might picture a shady looking fellow who ogles the ladies or engages in showy displays of racial discrimination. These stereotypical images of a harassment perpetrator may leave many falsely assuming that their mild behaviors don’t constitute harassment. In truth, however, harassment isn’t always as showy or blatant. If you have ever uttered an off-color joke about someone’s age, said something that you perceived as complimentary to a colleague about her dress or even made a comment about sexual orientation, you have exposed yourself to accusations of harassment.
Chain of Command
While supervisors harassing those they oversee is the form of harassment that gets the most attention, harassment doesn’t always have to follow this down-the-chain-of-command path. A supervisor can accuse an underling of harassment if the supervisor thinks the actions created a hostile workplace. Your boss could even accuse you of harassing him. For instance, if you are continually making jokes about your boss’s advanced age and he feels that these jokes are producing a hostile work environment, he can state that you are the harasser despite the fact that you hold no hire-fire power over him.
By definition, harassment is unwelcomed verbal or physical contact that relates to a person’s race, color, religion, gender, sexual preference, national origin, age or disability. Anyone who is a member of a “statutorily protected class,” can claim harassment, reminds the Federal Communication Commission. Because of the lengthy list of characteristics about which a person can be harassed, nearly everyone falls into a protected class. A Christian male, for instance, could claim religious harassment at the hands of a Jewish or Muslim co-worker or superior.
If your boss accuses you of harassing him, only you -- not the business as a whole -- can be held legally accountable. Businesses are accountable only for instances in which a supervisor harasses an individual he supervises. This accountability limitation stems from the two precedent setting cases, Burlington Industries, Inc. v. Ellerth and Faragher v. City of Boca Raton, both of which occurred in 1998.
There are two primary forms of harassment. Quid pro quo harassment occurs when the harasser -- in this case, always a supervisor -- tells the harassed employee that to get what she wants she must comply with his requests. In cases of quid pro quo harassment, harassed individuals are often made to feel that they must comply or will lose their jobs. An individual can also claim harassment if an employer, co-worker or even subordinate continually makes statements or engages in actions that create a hostile work environment. By definition, a hostile work environment is one in which the harassed individual cannot fulfill his job duties as a result of the harassment.
To act on the accusations, your boss will generally need some form of proof that the harassment is actually taking place. This proof, however, doesn’t have to be substantial. As Michael McCall reports for the Glatfelter Insurance Group, employers don’t have to prove “beyond a reasonable doubt” that you engaged in the alleged harassment. They must simply present a “preponderance of evidence,” that indicates that the harassment took place. A "preponderance of evidence," is a lower burden of proof, used in civil cases, that means only that it must be proven likely. This evidence can come in many forms, including exclusively testimony of witnesses to the alleged harassment.
- Federal Communication Commission: Understanding Workplace Harassment
- Glatfelter Insurance Group: Understanding Workplace Harassment Myths
- Equal Opportunity Employment Commission: Enforcement Guidance on Vicarious Employer Liability for Unlawful Harassment by Supervisors
- North Carolina Equal Employment Opportunity Commission: Unlawful Workplace Harassment
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