Under the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990, and the Age Discrimination Employment Act (ADEA) of 1967, discriminatory practices and behaviors in the workplace are forbidden. One common form of employment discrimination is harassment, both sexual and otherwise.
The American Heritage Dictionary defines harassment as: “the act of irritating or tormenting persistently.” In a work environment, harassment can take many forms: racial slurs, offensive language, or unwanted sexual contact, to name a few examples. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission defines illegal harassment using several criteria:
– Enduring offensive conduct or behavior becomes a condition or term of continued employment, or
– The offensive conduct is or becomes severe enough to create a work environment which any reasonable employee would consider intimidating, hostile, or abusive.
Despite legislative efforts to curb harassment in the workplace, the problem is still widespread. In many sexual harassment cases, for example, victims who speak out after being harassed become the targets of ridicule and retaliation, and are ostracized from their friends and co-workers. As a result, many victims are afraid to bring their situation to light. This creates a serious problem for victims, advocates, and law enforcement. Although the law makes retaliatory behavior against someone who reports a case of harassment illegal, cases alleging retaliation are often difficult to prove, due to the nature of the retaliatory behavior.
Of course, harassment does not always occur in a sexual manner or context. A perpetrator can be almost anyone – a co-worker, a boss, an agent of the company, or sometimes even non-employees. Perpetrators also go about their activities in different ways. Some may be direct and attempt to bully the target into submission, and others may count on their sparkling reputation to shield them from suspicion. Nor is harassment necessarily physical. Environmental harassment, such as a workplace filled with discriminatory images or propaganda, is also common. In all cases, it becomes difficult for the victim to protect him or herself. Furthermore, the target of the harassment is not necessarily the only victim. People around him or her may also suffer from the offensive behavior. Under law, any of these people can speak out against the illegal behavior, even if they have not been specifically targeted.
Most advocates for non-discriminatory work environments agree that prevention is the best option. Harassment is less likely to occur when employers educate their employees about the consequences of such behavior and provide a clear recourse for victims of harassment. Employees are also encouraged to communicate clearly and frequently with their employers. Any incidents of harassment should be reported to a supervisor or manager immediately, to prevent the pattern of behavior from escalating.