There has been a lot of talk lately about diversity in the workforce, sexual harassment, and hostile work environments. Unfortunately, people don't always understand the differences between some of these terms.
In this article, we're going to focus on the concept of a "hostile work environment." For anyone that suspects a boss, manager, or coworker is creating a hostile work environment, this article may be able to help form an objective opinion. We're going to provide some definitions, as well as examples, of unacceptable behavior in the workplace.
The government provides workplace protection for employees through the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. The Commission broadly defines Sexual Harassment as unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature when:
By examining these three elements of sexual harassment more closely, it becomes clear that it can be grouped into two categories: Quid Pro Quo, and a Hostile Work Environment.
The movie Silence of the Lambs provides everyone with a good understanding of the Quid Pro Quo category of harassment. The character Clarice bargains with Dr. Quinn for information on a "you give me this" and "I'll give you that" basis. The workplace example would be a supervisor or manager soliciting or coercing a sexual favor from a subordinate with the promise of a future promotion.
A Hostile Work Environment is present when the unwelcome sexual advances interfere with a person's job performance or creates a hostile, intimidating, or offensive work environment.
The example often cited for this category of harassment is the displaying of nude photographs, pinup calendars, or other demeaning pictures. Hostile Work Environments also exists where there is offensive jokes, remarks, or unwelcome touching.
Fortunately for employees, there is protection granted by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission against Sexual Harassment and a Hostile Work Environment. Specifically, in the form of a liability created:
The Employer is liable if management knew, or should have known, about the harassment and failed to take immediate and appropriate corrective action.
Most large companies understand the law, and realize that it is not in their best interest to have hostile work environments. In fact, many companies state they have a "zero tolerance" policy when it comes to this type of harassment.
However, the larger the company, the more it begins to look like a cross section of America. This means some of the workers may not be intelligent enough to realize what behavior is, and what behavior is not, appropriate at the workplace.
Sadly, it's also possible to find extremely intelligent people that simply ignore all of the information they've learned about creating hostile work environments. In both of these examples, it remains the employer's responsibility to take the appropriate corrective action.
Anyone that believes they are a victim of a hostile work environment should determine if their workplace has a process to conduct investigations into the allegations. Investigations are usually coordinated through the human resources departments of large companies.
It's always best to first work with the company to resolve any situation. If the company does not have a formal process, or ignores requests to deal with such events, then it's advisable to seek the counsel of an attorney. It's always a good idea to keep a written record of the events, circumstances, witnesses, and the dates of all significant actions.
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