When we hear the term harassment, most of us think of sexual harassment in the workplace. But, sexual harassment is only one of the many types workplace harassment. The term workplace harassment actually refers to a range of undesirable workplace behaviors.
As defined by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), workplace harassment is any “unwelcome conduct that is based on race, color, religion, sex (including pregnancy), national origin, age (40 or older), disability or genetic information.”.
Recently, however, allegations of sexual harassment in the workplace have dominated the headlines and several powerful people have lost the jobs over it. The question is, however, did they break the law?
Is Sexual Harassment Illegal?
Sexual harassment and all other forms of workplace harassment are illegal because of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. This law is most notable for outlawing racial segregation in schools, but it also prohibits discrimination in the workplace, including that which is based on race, color, religion, sex or national origin. So, sexual harassment and all other forms of workplace harassment are illegal because they violate a 54-year-old federal law.
What Kind of Sexual Harassment is Illegal?
Courts have ruled that in order for sexual harassment to be illegal, rather than simply immoral and distasteful, it needs to be severe or pervasive. This means that, if even one incident of harassing behavior is severe enough or harsh enough and shocking enough, it can constitute an illegal act.
Pervasive refers to a situation where, perhaps, you go to work every day only to hear sexual jokes and innuendos and women being made fun of because of their bodies. When this goes on all the time, day in and day out, the behavior is pervasive and constitutes a hostile and illegal environment in which to work.
Can a Person be Arrested for Sexual Harassment?
No one goes to jail for sexual harassment because acts of sexual harassment in the workplace break a civil law, not a criminal law. This goes for all other forms of workplace harassment as well. So, acts of harassment, as defined by the EEOC and prohibited by the Civil Rights Act of 1964, can only give rise to a civil lawsuit against your employer for monetary damages resulting from the harassment.
Outside of the workplace, the term harassment can refer to conduct that is prohibited by criminal statutes. Criminal harassment can be defined as purposely engaging in communication or conduct to annoy, threaten, or disturb another, such as:
- Repeatedly telephoning a person at inconvenient hours
- Sending disturbing or threatening email or text messages,
- Stalking, pushing, shoving, striking, or throwing things at a person
- The use of extremely offensive and disturbing language to vex or harass.
This type of harassment is illegal, and if arrested and found guilty, the offender may be sentenced to hefty fines, incarceration, and/or the imposition of a restraining order against them.
On the other hand, harassment in the workplace can only result in an arrest and conviction if it crosses the line into criminal conduct, such as when sexual harassment becomes sexual assault or rape.
For more information on sexual harassment, and how it pertains to your rights as an employee, contact an experienced employment law attorney.