When we hear the word “harassment,” we often associate it with the general mistreatment of one person by another. But much like “wrongful termination” and “discrimination,” the term “harassment” has a specific legal meaning in employment law – and not all “harassment” is unlawful. Harassment is made unlawful by a specific state or federal law or statute that prohibits the reason for the harassment. In the employment law context, unlawful harassment refers to mistreatment because of a protected trait: race, color, sex, pregnancy, religion, national origin, age, disability, military status, or for taking protected medical leave.
Like unlawful discrimination, unlawful harassment can take many forms, but not all harassment is unlawful. Harassment is only unlawful when it is so severe or pervasive that it alters the terms or conditions of employment.
What makes harassment rise to the level where it is so severe or so pervasive that it becomes unlawful?
One of the most well-known types of unlawful harassment is sexual harassment – which is unwanted or unwelcome verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature. But not even every unwanted or unwelcome act is prohibited by the law. Unlawful sexual harassment is unlawful only when the unwelcome sexual conduct is so severe or pervasive that it alters a term or condition of employment. While cases vary, this means law may require that the harassment be so severe (such as unwanted touching or groping, or at worst, a physical assault) or so pervasive (repeated improper jokes, leering, demeaning or degrading comments, etc.) that it is fundamentally changing your experience at work.
While harassment is never acceptable, harassment becomes unlawful if it is because of your race, color, sex, pregnancy, religion, national origin, age, disability, military status, or for taking protected medical leave and affects the terms and conditions of your employment. If you think you have experienced unlawful harassment, we can help.