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Harassment and Hostile Environment: Understanding the Basics

If you are the Equal Opportunity (EO) professional charged with ensuring nondiscrimination in the delivery of federally-funded programs and activities, or you serve as the Equal Employment Opportunity/Affirmative Action/Human Resources (EEO/AA/HR) professional charged with ensuring nondiscrimination in the workplace, you must have a working knowledge of “harassment” and “hostile environment.”

√ Two categories of harassment-related complaints.

Let’s start with an understanding that complaints of harassment-related discrimination fall into one of two categories: (1) quid pro quo harassment; or (2) hostile environment harassment.

Whether a complaint involves allegations of quid pro quo harassment or hostile environment, the conduct must be “unwelcome.” And, who defines whether conduct is “unwelcome”? It is defined “through the eyes of the beholder”; namely, the person subjected to the harassing conduct defines whether the conduct is offensive and unwelcome.

√ Harassment is discrimination.

“Harassment” and “hostile environment” constitute forms of discrimination, regardless of whether the “harassment” or “hostile environment” occurs in federally-funded programs and activities, or in the workplace.

When we hear the word “harassment”, many people first think of “sexual” harassment. To be sure, harassment on the basis of “sex” is a form of sex discrimination that is barred by federal law in the workplace, and in the delivery of federally-funded services, aid, training, and benefits.

That being said, it is equally important to keep in mind that harassment or hostile environment may occur on any prohibited basis of discrimination, including race, national origin, color, disability, age, and others. For example, you may see a complaint of race-based hostile environment, or a religion-based quid pro quo harassment complaint.

√ Quid pro quo harassment defined.

In the simplest of terms, quid pro quo harassment takes the form of bartering—“you give me this, and I’ll give you that.” A workplace example occurs where Jane, a supervisor, offers her assistant, Jason, a bonus in exchange for sexual favors. Jane has engaged in prohibited quid pro quo sexual harassment. Notably, Jane’s decision-making regarding whether to give Jason a bonus should be based on bona fide work-related criteria, not through bartering to get Jason to have sex with her.

Similarly, an example in the arena of federally-funded programs and activities is where Scott, the employment-referral counselor at a One Stop Career Center, refuses to refer Khalid to available security guard positions unless Khalid renounces his Islamic faith. Here, Scott has engaged in quid pro quo religious-based harassment—Khalid must give up his Islamic faith in exchange for referral to the security guard positions. This discrimination is illegal because Scott is obligated to base his decision to refer Khalid to security guard positions on whether Khalid meets the essential eligibility requirements for the referral, not Khalid’s religious beliefs or practices.

√ “Hostile environment” defined.

Turning to “hostile environment”, this type of discrimination does not involve the bartering of “you give me this and I’ll give you that.” Rather, a hostile environment is created where one person, or a group of people, engages in offensive conduct that is “so severe and pervasive” that it adversely alters another person’s workplace environment, or the person’s enjoyment of, and participation in, federally-funded programs and activities.

In determining whether conduct is “severe and pervasive”, the following factors should be considered: (1) the frequency of the conduct; (2) the severity of the conduct; (3) whether the conduct is physically threatening or humiliating, or a mere offensive utterance; and (4) whether the conduct unreasonably interferes with an employee’s job performance, or with a person’s participation in, or enjoyment of, a federally funded program or activity.

An example of “hostile environment” in the workplace is where Kristen works as a welder alongside eight co-workers, all of whom are men. Two of these co-workers are constantly telling sexist jokes, posting naked photos of women in the work area, and whistling at Kristen when she is working. Kristen is offended by the conduct, finds it unwelcome, and files a complaint. Kristen’s complaint involves allegations of a “hostile sexual environment”, which adversely altered her working conditions.

In federally-funded programs and activities, an example of hostile environment occurs where a group of students at a Job Corps Center posts derogatory remarks on facebook about Josh, a student with a mobility disability. They call him “crippled” and “stupid” in the hallways of the Center and deliberately place obstacles in front of his power chair. Josh files a disability-based hostile environment complaint. Here, the offending group of students created a “disability-based hostile environment” that, in turn, adversely altered Josh’s ability to enjoy, and participate in, the educational programs and activities offered at the Center.

√ Retaliatory “hostile environment” is against the law.

Whether in the workplace, or in federally funded programs and activities, creating a “hostile environment” against an individual in retaliation for filing an EEO complaint, or in retaliation for filing a discrimination complaint in a federally funded program, is prohibited. Every circuit court addressing this issue recognizes these complaints of “retaliatory hostile environment.”

If a person files a discrimination complaint, regardless of whether the complaint is ultimately successful or not, and then the person experiences “severe and pervasive” harassment from any member of your organization’s staff, your organization and the responsible staff members will be held liable. See Clegg v. Ark. Dep’t. of Corr., 496 F.3d 922 (8th Cir. 2007); Jordan v. City of Cleveland, 464 F.3d 584 (6th Cir. 2006); Jensen v. Potter, 435 F.3d 444 (3rd Cir. 2006), abrogated on other grounds by Burlington N. & Santa Fe Ry. Co. v. White, 548 U.S. 53 (2006); Hussain v. Nicholson, 435 F.3d 359 (D.C. Cir. 2006); Noviello v. City of Boston, 398 F.3d 76 (1st Cir. 2005); Von Gunten v. Maryland, 243 F.3d 858 (4th Cir. 2001), abrogated on other grounds by Burlington N., 548 U.S. 53; Ray v. Henderson, 217 F.3d 1234 (9th Cir. 2000); Richardson v. N.Y. State Dep’t. of Corr. Serv., 180 F.3d 426 (2nd Cir. 1999), abrogated on other grounds by Burlington N., 548 U.S. 53; Gunnell v. Utah Valley State Coll., 152 F.3d 1253 (10th Cir. 1998); Knox v. Indiana, 93 F.3d 1327 (7th Cir. 1996).

For example, in Gowski v. James Peake, MD (Sec’y., Dept. of Veterans Affairs, et al), ___ F.3d ___, No. 09-16371 (11th Cir. June 4, 2012), the circuit court noted that, after two hospital physician-employees filed EEO complaints of gender-based and religious-based discrimination, they were subjected to “severe and pervasive” retaliation at work, including the spread of demeaning rumors about the physicians by management that damaged their professional reputations, denial of hospital privileges to the physicians that could adversely affect their certifications, excluding the physicians from participating in work-related functions, and other similar acts. The court found that, taken as a whole, this conduct created a retaliatory hostile environment and damages were awarded against the hospital.

√ Obligations of EO and EEO professionals.

Thus, whether you work as an EO professional in federally-funded programs and activities, or as an EEO/AA/HR professional handling workplace discrimination, you must be familiar with the policies and procedures of your agency or organization pertaining to harassment and hostile environment. If no policies or procedures are in place, you must ensure that they are developed and published. Management and employees in your workplace, as well as beneficiaries and potential beneficiaries of your federally-funded programs and activities, must have notice of these policies and procedures.

If you receive a discrimination complaint based on harassment or hostile environment, you are required to take action. These complaints are fact-intensive and there may be more than one appropriate response to a particular complaint of harassment. Although only hindsight offers perfect clarity of what worked and what did not, doing nothing is never acceptable.

Seena Foster is an attorney and award-winning author of “Civil Rights Investigations Under the Workforce Investment Act and Other Title VI-Related Laws: From Intake to Final Determination.” She is also a Partner with Title VI Consulting in Alexandria, VA. You may visit her website at

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By | 28. Sep 2011 | Recent News | 75 Comments »


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