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Nolo's Plain-English Law Dictionary defines a hostile work environment as “working conditions that are created when unwelcome, discriminatory conduct is so severe or pervasive that it alters the conditions of a victim's employment and creates an abusive working environment.” In order for a hostile work environment to exist, there must be unlawful discriminatory conduct. Federal and state employment and civil rights law spell out what characteristics -- like sex, national origin and religion -- are protected.
U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission
This entity enforces federal employment laws protecting workers from unlawful discrimination. There are several statutes under this umbrella, beginning with the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Congress passes new anti-discrimination legislation as the need arises; for example, the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act of 2008 prohibits discrimination based on the results of genetic testing.
Maine Human Rights Act
Section 4571 of this statute states that “the opportunity for an individual to secure employment without discrimination because of race, color, sex, sexual orientation, physical or mental disability, religion, age, ancestry or national origin is recognized as and declared to be a civil right.” This law also protects pregnant and breastfeeding women. Other sections of the act protect against discrimination in credit, housing and education.
Whistleblowers’ Protection Act
The Whistleblowers’ Protection Act is a subchapter within the Maine Revised Statutes, Title 26. This law protects employees who have reported or have refused to cooperate with an illegal or unsafe business practice. The employee must first address the issue with his supervisor and allow for time to correct the practice.
Other Employee Rights
The Maine Department of Labor calls for protection of employee rights. The department has guidelines relating to domestic violence victims, medical leave, health and safety, smoking and breastfeeding.
Filing a Complaint
The Maine Human Rights Commission investigates complaints of discrimination on a case by case basis; employees must submit the complaint in writing within 300 days from the date of discrimination. The investigation and settlement is a complex and lengthy process, lasting up to two years. Filing a complaint is different from filing a lawsuit, and the Commission can dismiss the investigation and provide a right-to-sue letter if it is 180 or more days from the initial complaint.
Based in Colorado, Natalie Walker is a writer and child/family therapist. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in anthropology from the University of Georgia and a master's degree in social work from Colorado State University.