One of the most common misconceptions I find among employees is the belief that all harassment is unlawful. Employees hear terms like “harassment” or “hostile work environment” and apply everyday meaning to those terms. However, those are legal terms with specific legal meaning. Harassment in North Carolina and Tennessee, and in most states, is unlawful in the workplace only if it is being directed to the victim due to an unlawful motive. Those unlawful motives are generally based on legally protected characteristics including:
- Sex (or gender)
- National origin
- Age 40 or older
Therefore, to have an legally actionable claim the conduct directed to the employee must be on the basis of one of these 7 characteristics. (Keep in mind the focus of our blog is NC and TN and some states may have additional protections for employees.) So, if your boss is shouting at you and demeaning you every day because you are female, then there is an unlawful motive for the conduct. If your boss is shouting at you and demeaning you every day because he does not like the football team you pull for, then there is no unlawful motive for the conduct.
Additionally, to be unlawful, the conduct must meet other requirements as well. For example, the conduct must be severe or pervasive. Severe is a very high legal standard that is rarely met (think actual assault). Pervasive, in general, means that the conduct is being regularly repeated over an extended time period. This means that one-time or occasional comments or conduct will not meet the pervasive standard.
Steps to deal with harassment at work:
- Communicate to the harasser that their conduct bothers you.
- Review the employer’s harassment policy.
- Follow the employer’s procedure for reporting such harassment.
- Consult with an experienced employment attorney if the harassment continues.