With the recent #MeToo movement on social media, quid pro quo harassment, workplace bullying and hostile work environments have moved to the forefront of many social discussions. It’s crucial for employees to know the difference between these different terms and to understand their rights when they experience these situations.

What is a Hostile Work Environment?

Hostile work environments are created when the workplace atmosphere becomes offensive and intimidating to victims based on the conduct of managers, customers, contractors, co-workers or others who interact with victims at work. Victims may constantly feel uncomfortable at work, and this affects both the quality of their work and their mental health. Hostile work environments are always severe and pervasive, so isolated abusive incidents would not meet the conditions of a hostile environment. The atmosphere must be impacting the conditions of the victim’s employment. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission investigates all claims of workplace harassment, and they test an environment’s hostility based on whether a reasonable person would see the situation as abusive or not.

The Legal Definition of Workplace Harassment

Several laws protect employees from being subject to discriminatory harassment in the workplace including the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967. Together, these three laws protect workers from unwelcome conduct on the basis of their age, race, nationality, gender, religion, sexual orientation or disability. To be considered unlawful, harassment must meet two conditions. Accepting the harassment must become a condition of continued employment, and the harassment must be severe enough that it meets the conditions of a hostile work environment. The Department of Labor explains that a hostile work environment condition is met when the treatment is objectively severe enough that a reasonable person would see the situation as abusive. Additionally, the unwelcome harassment must be based on the victim’s protected status. While these definitions help define workplace harassment, it is often challenging to determine at what point office conduct has crossed the legal line.

Quid Pro Quo Harassment

Quid Pro Quo means “this for that”, and it can be used to describe one type of unlawful harassment in the workplace. This type of exchange usually happens when an employment decision is based on the victim’s acceptance or rejection of certain advances or requests. Usually, this type of harassment is sexual in nature and the offender is capable of making recommendations about the victim’s employment. The offender may threaten or follow through with threats to the victim such as terminating employment, suspension, demoting the victim, reducing pay or restricting hours. Quid pro quo sexual harassment does not always have to be a direct request for sexual favors. Sexual harassment may include unwanted physical contact, inappropriate comments, exposure to sexually explicit material, following an individual around the workplace or spreading sexual rumors. Quid pro quo harassment harms the victim both professionally and emotionally.

Workplace Bullying

A hostile work environment situation only applies when conduct is considered harassment or discrimination, and it is based on sex, religion, race, color, age, disability, national origin or genetic information. Workplace bullying does not create a hostile work environment. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration does regulate workplace violence, but in many situations the workplace bullying does not involve violence. In most states, workplace bullying behaviors are completely legal. There are no laws that can protect people from being fired for reporting workplace bullying. Workplace bullying may not be illegal, but it is a huge waste of resources. It takes a toll on the mental well-being of victims, and it takes away from what could be productive work. The Harvard Business School studied the impact that toxic workers have on companies and found that such employees cost companies an average of $12,489.

How Can I Protect Myself?

The United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission highly encourages employees to directly confront your abuser. They advise you to inform your abuser that their conduct is unwelcome and should be stopped immediately. In addition, employees are advised to report harassment to higher management. These suggestions are meant to prevent escalation.

Tips for Avoiding a Hostile Work Environment

The Department of Labor suggests that employers can greatly limit harassment in the workplace by implementing disciplinary measures for abusive or harassing conduct that doesn’t reach the threshold for legal action. Employers should treat such incidents as misconduct. The agency recommends that employees always promptly report harassment to supervisors. It is extremely important for individuals coming forward about workplace abuse to understand whether the situation constitutes legal harassment or lawful workplace bullying.

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