Posted by Tamara
Some Colorado employers and employees have asked if “hostile work environment” and “sexual harassment” mean the same thing.
The answer is no. The terms are not interchangeable.
Sexual harassment occurs when a Colorado employee, male or female, is subjected to unwanted attention due to his or her gender. For example, Grace is a teenager working for a fast-food restaurant. Her boss pressures her to have sex with him. Grace refuses, but her boss continues his sexual overtures. He is guilty of sexual harassment.
A hostile work environment is created whenever a Colorado employee is the target of negative behavior because of his or her age (40 to 70), gender, nationality, disability, pregnancy, race, color or religion. This behavior may come from anyone in the workplace, including supervisors and co-workers.
A recent Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) case provides an example of a hostile work environment. In this case, the owner and managers of a chain of new car dealerships repeatedly referred to female employees and customers as “dingbats”. Female sales employees were also subjected to derisive comments when they didn’t reach their sales totals. The male sales employees who failed to make their sales quotas weren’t subjected to derisive comments, only the female sales employees.
The federal court ruled that this behavior constituted a hostile work environment for women and awarded about a dozen current and former female sales employees over $12 million.
Another recently settled EEOC case involved the Hilton Hotel in Lisle, Illinois. The Executive Chef at the hotel repeatedly referred to the Hispanic employees as “dumb Mexicans” and “wetbacks”. This negative behavior targeted these employees because of their nationality, race or color, which created a hostile work environment for them.
These cases did not include unwelcome sexual advances so were not classified as sexual harassment, but both did constitute illegal discrimination.
Federal antidiscrimination laws mandate that employers provide workers with an environment that is free from discrimination. That means that anytime a person creates a hostile work environment, the employer is legally responsible to putting an end to it.
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