What Constitutes Harassment by a Supervisor?

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An employee being harassed by a supervisor.There are many laws at both the federal and state level that prohibit discrimination and harassment in the workplace. It is comforting to know that legislators enacted these laws to protect workers from harassment. But people still struggle when it comes to identifying what behavior is harassment and what is not. It is great to have all these rules on the books. But if workers cannot properly identify harassment, then the rules really don’t pack much of a punch.

Identifying harassment by a supervisor can be even more daunting. When a supervisor behaves in ways that make you uncomfortable, the average worker is likely to brush it off. Employees do this because they are not certain when offensive behavior actually crosses the line into illegal conduct. This uncertainty causes most people to err on the side of caution when their job is at stake. It can be a tricky business to know where to draw that line and when to act. Some people suffer for years at the hands of their abusers because they are afraid of overreacting or making waves. But laws exist to save you from this daily torment. So today we will dive into the critical discussion of how to draw that proverbial line in the sand and identify when a supervisor is guilty of harassment.

What Is Harassment?

The US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) defines harassment as a form of employment discrimination and unwelcome conduct that is based on a worker’s inclusion in a protected class. Essentially, federal and Maryland state law protects workers from harassment based on their race, nation of origin, skin color, religion, sex, sexual identity, sexual orientation, marital status, pregnancy, age, disability, and more. On its face, this may seem pretty clear cut. But in application and enforcement, anti-discrimination rights can seem a bit murky. When in doubt, it is always best to consult an experienced employment legal matters attorney who is well-versed in sorting out what constitutes harassment and what does not. But here are some pointers to get you started.

Co-Worker Versus Supervisor Harassment

When the same people work together day in and day out for years, they tend to fall into patterns of behavior. Those patterns of “acceptable” or expected behavior vary greatly from workplace to workplace and from industry to industry. For instance, telling an off-color joke can seem perfectly acceptable on a construction site but not acceptable if you work at a church. In this way, each workplace creates its own little social environment. And employees become accustomed to those social norms over time. Co-workers occasionally ribbing each other can make work more pleasant, as long as these jokes don’t take a dark turn.

If and when so-called jokes and ribbing begin to target a protected class or any one person or group of persons—it can cross the line into harassment. This hurtful behavior can come from co-workers or supervisors. But when a supervisor joins in the fun or perpetrates abuse themselves, things can get difficult for the victim quickly. Obviously, supervisors are in a position to “make or break” your career or advancement within your company. So abuse at their hands can be incredibly intimidating and usually happens in one of two ways.

Quid Pro Quo

Unfortunately, quid pro is a common form of harassment. Quid pro quo essentially means “this for that.” It often stems from a supervisor who decides that they want something from an employee that is decidedly beyond the scope of that individual’s work duties. The most common form of quid pro quo harassment is sexual in nature. It involves the abuser “suggesting” or stating outright that if the employee grants the supervisor certain sexual favors, they will receive preferential treatment at work. A less common form of quid pro quo harassment can be religious in nature. Here are some examples of how quid pro quo harassment can play out in the work environment:

  • Your boss knows you are up for a promotion and suggests that you might increase your chances if you go out on a date with them;
  • Your supervisor asks you point-blank to perform sexual acts in exchange for a promotion or pay raise;
  • A manager states that you can get better work hours or assignments if you go to their house of worship with them every week; or
  • Your boss repeatedly propositions you sexually, and after months of denying their advances, they fire or demote you.

These are just a few examples of how this form of harassment may play out. But any time that you feel your chances of work advancement hinges on cooperating with managerial commands that fall outside your employment duties, you may be the victim of quid pro quo harassment.

Hostile Work Environment

Employees’ and employers’ attitudes impact the quality of any workplace. But employers carry a greater responsibility to ensure that all employees feel comfortable on the job. The captain guides the ship, and employers and supervisors can set the tone for any business. In other words, if the boss is even mildly abusive it gives others the “go ahead” to jump in the game. And if the game includes behaviors that make others feel unwelcome, disliked, or in any way targeted, it is likely harassment. A few examples of abusive behaviors include:

  • Explicit discussions of sexual appetites and habits;
  • Repeated unnecessary and unwelcome touching;
  • Constant comments about peoples’ bodies;
  • Repeated telling of off-color jokes that are sexual in nature;
  • Repeated telling of jokes that target protected classes of people; and
  • Constant use of derogatory pet names or epithets.

Please note that each of these examples contains an element of repetitive behavior. In other words, one or two instances of off-color jokes are not likely to rise to the level of an abusive and hostile work environment. This type of conduct rises to the level of harassment only if it is subjectively offensive, pervasive, and severe enough to create a work environment that a reasonable person would find abusive or hostile.

Contact the Professionals

The lawyers at the Smithey Law Group fight daily to protect your rights in the workplace. If you believe that you are the victim of harassment at work, call us at 410-919-2990 or contact us online today. We would be honored to put our years of experience to work for you.

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Joyce Smithey, a seasoned employment and labor law attorney, has over 22 years of experience representing both employers and employees in Maryland and D.C. Her practice, rooted in a deep understanding of employment law, spans administrative hearings to federal litigation. Joyce's approach is comprehensive, focusing on protecting client interests while ensuring legal compliance. A Harvard graduate, her career began in Fortune 500 companies, transitioning to law after a degree from Boston University School of Law. Joyce's expertise is recognized by numerous awards, including Maryland’s Top 100 Women. At Smithey Law Group LLC, which she founded in 2018, Joyce continues to champion employment rights, drawing on her rich background in law and business.

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