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Workplace Harassment Defined

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Workplace harassment harms the work environment for everyone even when it is directed at only one or two people. Harassment can occur between an employer and an employee or between two co-workers. It happens when one person experiences unwelcome physical or verbal conduct from another person. Some forms of harassment are considered discrimination under federal law. When companies, businesses or organizations permit discrimination at work, they can be held liable in a court of law.


The U.S. Department of Labor defines harassment as unwelcome behavior that includes lewd comments and slurs, threats, inappropriate touching, physical or verbal abuse. The federal government prohibits all forms of harassment in federal workplaces, regardless of whether the victims are in a federally protected class or not. Organizations and businesses with employees would do well to follow a "no tolerance" policy regarding any form of workplace harassment. Workplace harassment leads to a hostile work environment, which negatively affects employees and workplace productivity.

Hostile Work Environment

Federal laws prohibit harassment that creates a hostile work environment because of discrimination. Anywhere people are employed and someone at work makes other people feel uncomfortable, intimidated, oppressed or offended because of their race, national origin, disability, religious beliefs, gender, sex or age, there is a hostile work environment. Everyone, protected classes included, have the right to work in an hostile-free work environment. A hostile work environment damages employee morale and work quality, and generates high employee turnover.


Harassment against people in protected classes is considered discrimination under the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and subsequent amendments. An employer must ensure that there is no discrimination in the workplace. Employers that tolerate discrimination in the form of harassment against protected employees can be judged to be permitting workplace civil rights violations. Employees in protected classes can file claims of discrimination with the EEOC or with their state's labor board against their employer.

Claims and Lawsuits

After an employee files a claim, the commission might ask her to participate in mediation with the employer to solve the problem. When mediation doesn't work or if the commission doesn't send the case to mediation, an investigation begins. If a violation is discovered, the commission attempts to reach a settlement with the employer on the victim's behalf. It might also send the case to its legal staff or the Department of Justice, which can file a lawsuit for the victim. If the commission decides to not pursue a lawsuit, or if no violation was found, the victim receives a "Notice-of-Right-to-Sue” from the EEOC. This notice allows the victim to pursue the lawsuit on her own, with the help of a lawyer.