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When does workplace disrespect become harassment?

Your supervisor at work may be a sexist jerk, but is he breaking the law?

“The line between disrespect and harassment is very thin," said Matt Verdecchia, a senior trainer with Health Advocate’s EAP+Work/Life division, “We need to be more sensitive to insensitivity.” His comments came during the annual conference of the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM).

It can be difficult to determine whether disrespectful behavior by a supervisor or co-worker crosses the line and becomes actionable harassment. Human resource professionals strive to create workplace cultures where no one toes that line, but their efforts are not foolproof.

What Constitutes Harassment?

Disrespect in the workplace can take many forms, including invading someone’s privacy, gossiping about them or bullying them. This type of treatment can weigh on morale, but is not necessarily actionable harassment. Verdecchia warns that disrespect in a work environment often serves as a gateway to harassment.

Federal law states harassment is unlawful conduct that affects any person based on the different classes that are protected by law: race, color, religion, national origin, age, gender, disability, genetic information and veteran status. There are two forms of workplace harassment:

  • Quid pro quo harassment – Employment decisions or treatment is based on submission to or rejection of unwelcome conduct.
  • Hostile work environment – Conduct by supervisors, co-workers, contractors or anyone else that makes the workplace intimidating, hostile or offensive.

Quid pro quo harassment is more obvious than the second form, creating a hostile work environment. In order to meet the legal requirement for a hostile work environment, the conduct must be both unwelcome and pervasive. A one-time offense, such as a co-worker telling a racist joke or telling a colleague she is “really sexy,” does not constitute harassment if the offender does not repeat the offense after being warned such comments are unwelcome.

Verdecchia emphasizes that the conduct does not have to be intentional to meet the requirements for harassment. What is offensive is in the eye of the person offended. It can be verbal, nonverbal, physical or written.

Taking legal steps to report workplace harassment begins with reporting the actions to any manager. Every HR department should have clear policies that set expectations about treatment of co-workers, as well as policies and procedures when those expectations are not met.

The line between inconsiderate co-workers and harassment can be difficult to distinguish. If you are bothered by treatment you are receiving at work after you have reported it to a manager, it’s best to contact a knowledgeable employment law attorney.

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