Module 2 of 4

Discrimination and Harassment

Conduct yourself in a professional manner and treat others with respect, fairness, and dignity.

Using the simple guideline above is the simplest way to avoid running into discrimination and harassment issues. But, for more legal detail, let's return to the types of sexual harassment from the EEOC:

  1. submission to such conduct is made either explicitly or implicitly a term or condition of an individual’s employment;
  2. submission to or rejection of such conduct by an individual is used as a basis for employment decisions affecting such individual; or
  3. such conduct has the purpose or effect of unreasonably interfering with an individual’s work performance or creating an intimidating, hostile, or offensive work environment.

On the next page we'll start with types 1 and 2, referred to as "quid pro quo."

Quid Pro Quo

"This for That" Harassment

"Quid pro quo" (Latin) translates loosely to "this for that" or "something for something". For our purposes, it is used to describe cases of sexual bribery or coercion. It is important to note that not all cases of harassment are as obvious as overtly 'quid pro quo' scenarios.

There are grey areas in sexual harassment, making it essential that you have a clear grasp of the law and company policy to protect yourself.

For instance, if an employer suggests to an employee that he or she can help them get ahead if they will agree to certain conduct, this is a pretty clear case of quid pro quo discrimination. However, let's consider a different, trickier scenario.

Let's say an employer with influence (let's call him Eric) assumes a voluntary mentoring role to another employee (let's call her Sarah). Eric helps her to move ahead in her career, occasionally meeting to check in or give advice. Over time, Eric develops a romantic interest and asks his employee, Sarah, on a date. Could this lead to a case of sexual discrimination?

To find out, let's consider it from the employee's perspective.

Considering Perspectives

In this scenario Eric, the employer, likely has no intention to affect the career of his employee, Sarah, one way or another. He has a sincere romantic interest and simply wishes to pursue it.

43% of U.S. workers reported having dated a co-worker. Of these, 27% reported having dated someone with a higher position. (source)

But what if Sarah does not wish to date Eric, and is now nervous (or assumes) that the nature of their relationship has changed? Would she still feel comfortable around her superior? Would work-performance suffer?

Discrimination is as much about the outcome and as it is the original intention, which leads to much of the grey area involved.
This also leads us to our final form of sexual discrimination.

Hostile Work Environment

Our final type of sexual harassment, referred to as the "hostile work environment", is by far the most commonly reported form of sexual discrimination.

Type 3: Conduct has the purpose or effect of unreasonably interfering with an individual's work performance or creating an intimidating, hostile, or offensive working environment.

This occurs when an employee is subjected to comments of a sexual nature, unwelcome physical contact, or offensive sexual materials as a regular part of the work environment. For the most part, a single isolated incident will not be enough to prove hostile environment harassment unless it involves extremely outrageous and egregious conduct.

The courts will try to decide whether the conduct is both "serious" and "frequent." Supervisors, managers, co-workers and even customers can be responsible for creating a hostile environment.

Now let's return to our earlier scenario, and see whether things might turn into a hostile work environment for Sarah, our employee.

Unintended Consequences

"Quid pro quo" and "hostile environment" harassment often occur together, and indeed one may occasionally lead to another.

Returning to our example of Eric and Sarah, let's consider that Sarah's work performance may have already been affected by her discomfort around her boss (and her sense that her career will be affected). Her boss, Eric, may display a similar discomfort around Sarah, and avoid her. This might affect her potential assignments, or opportunities for advancement. Other employees might even notice the rift, and distance themselves from Sarah.

While this is simply one possible unintended outcome of many, it illustrates the power of unintended consequences. This is also why it's a good idea to consult with your HR department before dating a co-worker. We'll focus on Company Policy in the next module.

One final note on the law: A workplace harassment complainant must file with the EEOC to receive a "right to sue" before filing a lawsuit against a company in Federal Court.

Let's try a quick scenario before moving onto Module 3.

Scenario 1: Is This Sexual Harassment?

You work at the reception desk, and interact frequently with various delivery personnel. You tell one delivery person a sexually provocative joke, and they're offended.

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