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Understanding Different Types of Harassment

Harassment is a word that often conjures up situations of company men lauding their power over less powerful female colleagues. While this constitutes a particular type of harassment, it is certainly not the only type of harassment in the workplace. Instead, there are various types of harassment, which we will explore in this article.

Harassment is a serious issue, and not only for victims of harassment. Prolonged workplace harassment that has not been addressed by the company can lead to a damaging work environment for many employees. Before you can take action against harassment, it’s important to understand the many ways harassment can occur.

At California Sexual Harassment Attorney, we specialize in workplace harassment and discrimination. Our many years of experience of serving people across the State of California means we can help you understand your case and potential actions and outcomes better than anyone else. We’ve put together the following resource as information in understanding harassment in the workplace. It is not intended as legal advice, as only an attorney who fully understands your situation can provide that.

What is harassment in the workplace?

In its most basic definition, harassment is aggressive intimidation and/or pressure. For the purposes of this article, we are dissecting harassment in the workplace.

In the United States, several laws collectively define workplace harassment as the repeating or continuation of non-consensual contact by one or more persons that serves no meaningful or useful purposes other than creating annoyance, alarm, or emotional distress on the subject(s). 

The 1964 Civil Rights Act included a section known as Title VII. This section explicitly prohibits workplace discrimination with regard to race, color, religion, sex, and national origin.

Title VII quickly became the basis for the earliest harassment laws. In 1969, the Department of Defense created a Human Goals Charter, which created a policy of equal respect for both men and women. Further important dates in the prohibition of harassment include a 1986 ruling by the Supreme Court that recognized harassment in the form of employers who promote a sexually hostile work environment. By 2002, other types of non-sexual harassment became prevalent, and President George W. Bush approved a law that made sending spam illegal – that is, the annoying messages sent over the internet, often by email, without providing the sender’s true identity.

This brief legal history makes it clear that harassment does not have to be of a sexual nature to be considered harassment.

Today, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) formally defines harassment as any unwelcome verbal and/or physical behavior that is based on Title VII’s original five factors of race, color, sex, religion, and national origin. The EEOC has expanded its prohibition on harassment to further included harassment that is based on age, gender and gender identity (such as LGBTQ), genetic information, and physical or mental disability.

Importantly, Title VII provides protection against harassment only in certain situations, such as federal workplaces. The EEOC offers further protection. In California, additional state and local laws provide additional protection against illegal workplace harassment.

Are there different types of harassment?

Yes, there are many types of harassment. Harassment can be of a sexual or physical nature, wherein the harasser may threaten its subject to perform or endure a sexual act or behavior. But, this isn’t the only way harassment can occur. Harassment can also refer to actions or behavior that lead to the deterioration of your mental, emotional, and physiological self as well.

An important distinction is that workplace harassment does not mean only sexual harassment, and it can just as easily involve two people of the same gender as two people of opposite genders. The harasser can be a boss, an indirect supervisor, a colleague in your department or an entirely other one.

The EEOC defines harassment as crossing the line into being illegal when one of two situations occur:

  1. The subject of the offensive conduct must endure the conduct in order to maintain current employment status. This is known as quid pro quo.
  2. The offensive conduct is severe, intense, and/or so repetitive that a typical person could now see the workplace as hostile, intimidating, or abusive. This is known as hostile work environment.

Quid pro quo harassment

Sexual harassment can often fall within the legal definition of quid pro quo. The phrase quid pro quo is a Latin term that means the granting or expectation or a favor or advantage in return for something.

In the workplace, this can often mean that a person of power (the harasser) may create a situation for another person (the subject or victim) wherein the subject must endure non-consensual sexual behavior and/or perform non-consensual sexual acts in exchange for the maintenance of the subject’s current employment situation or other job benefit. The harasser could also demand this behavior in exchange for a job promotion, a raise in salary, etc. If the subject does not comply, the harasser may fire or demote the subject.

Quid pro quo harassment can frequently include some tangible action in response to whether the subject takes part in the threatening behavior. This means the harasser may hold some power over the subject, whether as a direct or indirect boss or supervisor or as someone in a position to grant promotions, such as an executive or high-level employee.

Others can be harassers in a quid pro quo harassment situation, too. For instance, a colleague in equal stature to the subject can threaten blackmail and exposure if the subject doesn’t agree to or go along with the harasser’s actions and behaviors. In this case, the tangible action outcome does not have to be job-related, though it often is. 

In quid pro quo harassment, something must be “on the line” for the subject – the job itself, a promotion, threat of blackmail or otherwise. Some examples can include making unwelcome sexual requests or demands with a threat if the subject doesn’t go along and assigning sexual favors to the subject’s employment.

Quid pro quo harassment also distinguishes between involuntary and unwelcome. A subject may succumb to the harasser’s advances because of the threat. Even if the victim voluntarily performs a sexual act or otherwise engages with the harasser as a result of the harassment, the subject still has a valid and legal right to fight the harassment as long as the subject can show the harassment was unwelcome.

Hostile work environment harassment

Compared to quid pro quo harassment, in a hostile work environment situation, there may not be an explicit action that occurs if the subject doesn’t take part or comply with the harasser. In this type of harassment situation, harassing conduct can include any action or behavior that is repeated and/or severe enough that one or more employees feel that the workplace has become intimidating or hostile. This means that those subject to the harassment may have a hard time coming into the workplace or that their work performance otherwise suffers.

Some examples of behavior that can lead to a hostile work environment include:

  • Making offensive comments or jokes related to someone’s person, including racial slurs, name-calling
  • Bullying, including mental and physical assaults
  • Physically threatening or intimidating someone
  • Getting other colleagues involved in joking, bullying, or otherwise making fun of the subject, which can escalate the situation in speed and intensity

Importantly, these actions don’t have to take place in a face-to-face environment to eventually lead to a hostile work environment. With the advent of the internet and our reliance on it for business purposes, a harasser can act offensively online, by bullying or making offensive comments to someone online via emails, instant messages, social media, photographs, etc.

Generally, this type of harassment must take place over time. A single incident or isolated event may not be considered hostile work environment harassment unless it is extraordinarily severe or egregious. In proving a case of hostile work environment, the courts will look for repeated, frequent, and sustained conduct.

Who can be a harasser?

Regardless of the type of harassment situation – quid pro quo or hostile work environment – any one related to the company can be a harasser. 

In quid pro quo harassment, the harasser is often much clearer: the person who is threatening action against the subject unless the subject goes along with the harassment.

In a hostile work environment, the harasser may be harder to determine. It could be a colleague who is verbally and digitally offending someone repeatedly. It could be a boss or indirect supervisor who refuses to respond to an employee’s complaint. It could be a client who regularly threatens or intimidates employees to get what he wants. The harasser could even be the company itself: if one or more employees are alleging harassment and the employer doesn’t respond or formally take notice of the allegations, this can further devolve into a hostile work environment.

Determining harassment: True or false

There are many types of workplace harassment. True. Harassment doesn’t refer to only one action. Instead, it can be the repeated action of one person towards another, or the culmination of many actions.

Harassment must be of a sexual nature. False. While sexual harassment is considered a type of harassment in the workplace, it is not the only one. Other types of harassment can include emotional, mental, physiological, and even physical non-sexual harassment.

Only people in a position of power over the victim can technically be guilty of harassment. False. Someone can certain laud his or her power over a subject in a way that threatens the subject to lose or otherwise compromise something unless the subject cooperates – which can often be the case in quid pro quo situations. But any actions and behaviors that devolve a normal working environment into a hostile one can be considered harassment.

Quid pro quo harassment and hostile work environment harassment can be related. True. U.S. courts have found that while it can be helpful to delineate between these two types of harassment, that they are not mutually exclusive. This means that a case of harassment can be considered both quid pro quo and a hostile work environment because they can lead to the same situation. For instance, a harasser in a quid pro quo situation who is threatening certain behavior can easily make the workplace so intolerable for the victim that, even if the victim hasn’t succumbed to the pressure of the harassment, the workplace has become a hostile work environment.

There can be only one victim for one harasser. False. Victims of harassment are often more widespread than we realize. When harassment occurs, it is common for the victim to believe it has only happened to him or her. In fact, when a harasser is harassing another person, this may or may not be the first time the person has harassed another person, so there could easily be other victims. Beyond that, harassment that contributes to a hostile work environment can affect many others in the workplace. Perhaps colleagues have witnesses some inappropriate behavior and they are unsure how to respond. Perhaps a victim has made a superior aware of the situation, which changes his or her relationship with the harasser. These people are all affected by workplace harassment. 

Harassment is illegal. True. Workplace harassment is illegal. It is important to remember, however, that one person acting on his or her own behalf does not mean the employer will see or recognize it, much less take steps to change the situation and potentially reprimand the harasser. While an employer is responsible to address any allegations of harassment, the employer may not know about them until a subject or victim of harassment steps forward.

California Sexual Harassment Attorney assists employees in understanding and fighting illegal workplace harassment. Our experience and our up-to-date knowledge on how these laws are applied means we provide the best support and guidance to victims of harassment across the State of California. Our first step is to learn as much as we can about your situation. Get in touch with us today at 800-905-1856 to learn your options.

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