The U.S. Senate confirmation hearings on the nomination of Clarence Thomas to the U.S. Supreme Court pushed the issue of sexual harassment to a new place of awareness among Americans. Before that, “sexual harassment policies wasn’t really a phrase Americans were accustomed to hearing, and few knew exactly what it meant in the employment law sense.

But those days are long gone and now human resources professionals have racial harassment, national origin harassment, religious harassment, age harassment, and disability harassment to keep track of as well and as sexual harassment. And some states and cities have laws that prohibit harassment in even more categories, such as sexual orientation.  

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has specifically warned all employers that they must establish harassment policies and complaint procedures for all types of protected harassment.

The following conduct could be harassment if it’s based on the victim’s protected class:

  • persistent offensive comments
  • threats or intimidation
  • physical assault
  • sabotaging the victim’s work
  • making false accusations against the victim

An employer’s liability for harassment depends on whether the harasser was someone with authority over the employee or was a coworker and what the employer knew and did in response to the harassment. An employer also can be liable if a customer, vendor, or other non-employee harasses an employee and the employer doesn’t take reasonable steps to prevent or correct it.

Hostile Work Environment

Harassment usually takes the form of a “hostile work environment,” in which a reasonable person would find it hostile or abusive and that a particular person experiencing the conduct finds hostile or abusive. It happens when one or more individuals create an offensive, intimidating, or oppressive atmosphere in which an individual experiences workplace harassment and/or fear.