Sexual Harassment/Hostile Work Environment
Quid Pro Quo Harassment
Many people are familiar with the most common form of sexual harassment, known as quid pro quoharassment. This is where a supervisor conditions a term of employment upon the victim engaging in sexual activity with him/her. An example is a supervisor threatening, “sleep with me or you’re fired” or “sleep with me and I will make sure you get that promotion.”
Hostile Work Environment
The other type of unlawful harassment is known as hostile work environment harassment. This occurs when unwelcome comments or conduct based on sex, race, color, national origin, age (40 and over), religion or disability unreasonably interfere with an employee’s work performance or create an intimidating, hostile or offensive work environment. Anyone in the workplace might commit this type of harassment–a management official, co-worker, or non-employee, such as a contractor, vendor or guest. The victim can be anyone affected by the conduct, not just the individual at whom the offensive conduct is directed.
To establish a hostile work environment, the employee must establish either:
- Conduct that is sufficiently severe or pervasive to alter the terms or conditions of employment; or
- A supervisor’s harassing conduct that results in a tangible change in employment status or benefits (e.g., demotion, termination, failure to promote).
Examples of actions that may create a sexually hostile work environment include:
- Leering–i.e., staring in a sexually suggestive manner;
- Making offensive remarks about looks, clothing or body parts;
- Touching in a way that may make an employee feel uncomfortable, such as patting, pinching or intentional brushing against another’s body;
- Telling sexual or lewd jokes, making sexual gestures or displaying pornography; or
- Sending, forwarding or soliciting sexually suggestive letters, notes, emails or images.
Sexual harassment can be strictly gender-based, i.e., not of a sexual nature, and can include same-gender harassment and gender identity harassment.
Some examples of other actions which may result in hostile environment harassment, but are non-sexual in nature, include:
- Use of racially derogatory words, phrases or epithets;
- Demonstrations of a racial or ethnic nature such as use of gestures, pictures or drawings which would offend a particular racial or ethnic group;
- Comments about an individual’s skin color or other racial/ethnic characteristics;
- Making disparaging remarks about an individual’s gender that are not sexual in nature;
- Negative comments about an employee’s religious beliefs (or lack of religious beliefs);
- Expressing negative stereotypes regarding an employee’s accent, birthplace or ancestry;
- Negative comments regarding an employee’s age when referring to employees 40 and over; or
- Derogatory or intimidating references to an employee’s mental or physical impairment.
What is Not Unlawful Harassment?
The anti-discrimination statutes are not a general civility code. Thus, federal law does not prohibit simple teasing, offhand comments, or isolated incidents that are not extremely serious. Rather, the conduct must be so objectively offensive as to alter the terms and conditions of the individual’s employment. The terms and conditions of employment are altered only if the harassment culminates in a tangible adverse employment action or is sufficiently severe or pervasive.
What to do if You Are Subjected to Harassment?
If you feel you are being subjected to unlawful harassment at work, you should:
- Carefully document all hostile comments and activities that occur in the workplace, including dates, times, persons involved, and names of witnesses;
- Focus on severe and pervasive comments and activities that are both hostile and addressed specifically to a protected group (such as a specific gender, race, religion, the disabled, etc.); and
- If your employer fails to take prompt and effective action to remedy the harassment, contact the Atlanta sexual harassment and hostile work environment lawyers at Law Offices of Gregory R. Fidlon, P.C. for a free consultation.
Statute of Limitations
In Georgia, an individual claiming sexual harassment or a hostile work environment must generally file a Charge of Discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) within 180 days from the date of the most recent unlawful act to preserve his/her rights.
Remedies for sexual harassment or a hostile work environment may include back pay, front pay, compensatory damages, punitive damages, injunctive relief, attorneys’ fees and costs.
Compensatory damages are allowed for future loss, emotional distress, pain and suffering, inconvenience, mental anguish and loss of enjoyment of life. In certain cases, punitive damages may be awarded to punish employers and deter them from intentionally violating the rights of other employees.
If you have been a victim of sexual harassment or a hostile work environment, the attorneys at Law Offices of Gregory R. Fidlon, P.C. can help. Please contact us for a free consultation
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