Harassment is a specific form of discrimination that is prohibited by federal and state laws. For harassment to be illegal, it must be based on an employee’s race, color, religion, sex, national origin, age, or disability. In addition, the harassment must be unwelcome and it must reach a certain threshold before it will violate the law. Harassment that is particularly severe or that continues over an extended period of time will generally be sufficient to reach the required threshold.
Sexual harassment is the most common form of harassment in the workplace and can take many forms. Examples of sexual harassment include sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and inappropriate physical contact. Sexual harassment, however, does not have to be explicitly sexual to violate the law. Acts of physical aggression or violence and incidents of verbal abuse that are directed toward an employee because of his or her gender may also constitute illegal sexual harassment.
Whether an employer may be held liable for harassment depends upon whether the harassment was committed by a supervisor or a co-worker. When an employee is harassed by a co-worker, the employer cannot be held liable for the harassment unless the employer knew or should have known about the harassment and failed to take prompt action to stop it from occurring. When an employee is harassed by a supervisor, however, the employer can be held automatically liable for the harassment unless it can prove that it exercised reasonable care to prevent and correct promptly any harassing behavior, and that the employee unreasonably failed to take advantage of any preventive or corrective opportunities provided by the employer. When harassment by a supervisor culminates in an adverse employment action against an employee, such as a termination or promotion denial, the employer can be held automatically liable for both the harassment and the adverse employment action.