In the past 3 decades or so, American courts of all levels have recognized that there is more than one type of sexual harassment. While quid pro quo harassment has existed for decades, hostile environment claims have been recognized much more recently. In even more recent years, there has been an expansion by the courts of claims of hostile environment outside of the realm of sexual harassment.
The majority of employers are well aware of the problems that are related to sexual harassment and hostile work environments. To combat this, these employers have adopted strict policies prohibiting sexual harassment that inflict rapid punishment when and if it is discovered.
Unfortunately, as recent court decisions have shown, an employer who tailors the anti harassment rules of the workplace only to sexual harassment leaves itself open to lawsuits regarding other forms of harassment in the workplace. Therefore, it is in any employer’s best interest to tailor anti-harassment rules to any and all forms of harassment.
The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, or EEOC, has taken the position that conduct constituting harassment on the basis on any protected class is unlawful. The EEOC has also decided that the same analysis used to determine if there has been a hostile environment for sexual harassment can be applied to cases involving any protected class. Protected classes, as defined by the various employment and anti-discrimination statutes and acts, include race, gender, religion, national origin, age, and disability.
There have been a number of recent decisions that conform to the position of the EEOC. For example, a recent lawsuit involving African-American and Hispanic employees suing their employer due to the racial slurs that existed in the workplace were able to pursue, and win, hostile environment claims on the basis of racial discrimination and national origin discrimination.
In addition, another court case found that an employer’s harassment policy was inadequate. The policy was inadequate because it only recognized and prohibited harassment regarding sexual advances and propositions and not harassment based on gender or other protected areas.
Some would think that common courtesy and general manners and etiquette would clue people in to the inappropriateness of their actions and words. Apparently, this is lacking. As a classic example, an employer lost a harassment or hostile work environment lawsuit following his complaints to an employee about a lack of availability on religious holidays. Following the critique of the lack of availability, the employer was clever enough to make a number of slurs against the employee regarding religion.