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Hostile Environment Claims: Not Limited to Sexual Harassment

Harassment Basics

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Harassment Takes Many Forms in the Workplace

Copyright Susan Stewart

Most employers are aware of problems related to and have adopted policies prohibiting sexual harassment. An employer who limits its anti-harassment efforts to claims of sexual harassment, however, does so at its own risk.

Both the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and the Michigan Department of Civil Rights (MDCR) have taken the position that conduct constituting harassment on the basis of any protected class is unlawful. They have also determined that the analysis used in sexual harassment cases should be applied to cases involving harassment because of race, gender, religion, national origin, age and disability. (Check the laws and positions of governmental entities in your own state or country.)

Sample Workplace Harassment Decisions

Recent court decisions are consistent with the position taken by these administrative agencies. Examples of such decisions about workplace harassment include:

  • Hispanic and African-American employees were allowed to pursue hostile environment claims on the basis of race and/or national origin discrimination when they were subjected to ethnic and racial slurs.


  • An employer’s harassment policy was found to be inadequate because it recognized only harassment based upon sexual advances and propositions, and not harassment based upon gender.


  • An employee stated a claim for religious harassment when her supervisor criticized and berated her for her lack of availability on her religious holiday and made derogatory statements to her about her faith.


  • A court allowed a disability hostile environment claim by an employee whose supervisor taunted him about his disability, required him to perform work beyond his physical limitations and called him various derogatory names related to his disability.


  • A court refused to dismiss a case before trial, holding that a jury should decide whether age was a factor in an employee’s termination. The court cited the fact that a supervisor referred to the employee as “old man” and frequently referred to his aging appearance.

Proactive handling of harassment issues in the workplace should be a priority for all employers. In order to assist employers with this process, the EEOC has issued guidelines addressing numerous forms of harassment. This information can be accessed on the EEOC’s web site.

Interested in the steps an employer must take if an employee charges harassment?

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