Title VII is a federal law which seeks to address discrimination and harassment in workplaces. Title VII regulates employers with 15 or more employees. Title VII prohibits harassment of individuals based on the following protected characteristics: race, color, national origin, sex, religion, and some other factors.
What constitutes harassment?
For an employee to bring a harassment claim under Title VII, the employee must possess a protected characteristic as identified above, be subject to harassment, the harassment must be related to a protected characteristic as identified above, and the harassment must be severe enough that it resulted in a change in the terms or conditions of the employee’s employment or created a “hostile” work environment. Finally, there must be a basis for holding the employer liable.
A “hostile” work environment exists where harassment unreasonably interferes with the employee’s performance or creates an intimidating, hostile, or offensive environment for the employee. The conduct of the harasser must be severe and pervasive in order for an employee to establish a hostile work environment. The factors that courts analyze to determine if conduct amounts to a hostile work environment are the frequency of the conduct, the severity of the conduct, whether the conduct was physically threatening or humiliating, and whether the conduct unreasonably interfered with the employee’s job performance. The factors are analyzed through a mixed objective and subjective approach. The conduct must be subjectively perceived by the employee and the conduct must be judged objectively under a reasonable person standard.
It is important to note that employees are not protected by Title VII against general rudeness, horseplay, or even workplace flirtation. Title VII is not a general civility code and is meant to protect employees against conduct that involves patterns or allegations of extensive, long lasting, unaddressed, and uninhibited threats or conduct.
How should employers handle harassment?
To limit liability for harassment claims, employers should take reasonable care to prevent harassment through training and written policies, diligently investigate any claims of harassment, and correct any reported harassment or harassment about which the employer becomes aware. An employer can minimize liability for harassment committed by a supervisor if it implements and takes the above steps in a reasonable manner. It is also important to have written policies in place and to have the policies reviewed periodically by an attorney ensure that the policies comply with current law. If you are an employer that has a written policy it is recommended to have an employee sign and acknowledge receipt of the policy.
Employers become liable for non-supervisor harassment if they knew or should have known of the harassing conduct, but failed to take prompt remedial action.
Both instances of harassment, whether supervisory or non-supervisory, require that the employer quickly and reasonably respond to any allegations of harassment. Employers can limit their liability by taking corrective action that is immediate, appropriate, and reasonably likely to stop the harassment. Examples of actions to limit liability include, confronting and counseling the alleged harasser in a prompt manner, disciplining the alleged harasser if warranted, adjusting schedules or transferring the alleged harasser to end the alleged harassment, and by being committed to training and policies which prevent harassment.
If an allegation of harassment has been brought against you as an employer, contact an attorney immediately to protect your rights.