Workplace harassment can take many forms; it does not need to be sexual. It consists of unwanted conduct that is severe and/or repetitive. The conduct must be on the basis of protected status, which includes age, disability, color/race, national origin, religion or sex. This is not an exhaustive list of protected statuses.
The unwanted conduct does not have to come from an employee’s superior to qualify as workplace harassment. A co-worker could also engage in harassing behavior. Furthermore, it is not only the employee engaging in unwanted conduct that could face punishment but the company itself.
Possible punishments for employees
An employer can punish employees who commit workplace harassment. For a first offense, an HR representative may hold a conference with the employee alleged to have committed harassment. The purpose is to ensure that the employee understands the offensive nature of the conduct and obtain a promise that he or she will avoid it in the future. The offended party may or may not be present at this conference.
Depending on the seriousness and frequency of the offense, employees may also be subject to the following disciplinary measures:
- Citation (written warning)
Severe or repeated harassment could result in an employee’s termination. Furthermore, because harassment is against the law, the victim could choose to press criminal charges, and the alleged harasser could end up serving jail time.
Possible penalties for employers
Depending on the circumstances, a company may be responsible for the conduct of the workers it hires, whether they be employees or independent contractors. Therefore, the victim of harassment can hold the company liable for the conduct of its workers. If this is the case, the company may have to pay the victim compensation for damages such as counseling, legal fees and lost wages.
Circumstances in which an employer may be liable include if he or she should have known about the harassment but did not or else knew about the harassment but did nothing.