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Continuing Discussion on Harassment: Illegal or Inappropriate: Does it really matter?

OutSolve

From Toni Ahl, our partner at EEO Advantage

For the last several months, I’ve written about illegal harassment. That is harassment due to one of the protected bases covered by the statutes enforced by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). But, does it really matter if the harassment is illegal if the behavior is simply inappropriate?

If I present one of my co-workers with an AARP card for her birthday, is that illegal or inappropriate? If my co-worker is a close friend and I’m older than she is, there is probably nothing wrong with my action. Although knowing how something is going to be received by anyone can be tricky. If, on the other hand, I fill a co-worker’s office with black balloons, hang banners all around the office saying, “Over the hill” and put a vase of black roses on her desk, that might be inappropriate behavior especially is I know this birthday has been bothering her. This still may not be illegal since it is a one-time action. If I begin asking this same co-worker every day if she is considering retirement and if I can have her office when she is gone, it might rise to the level of harassment and be considered age harassment if I’m younger.

Inappropriate behavior can lead to illegal harassment if joking and kidding continues. Supervisors must be vigilant in watching and listening to what is going on at the work site. Workplaces should be places where employees feel valued and respected. Employees should treat one another in a professional, respectful and polite manner. Kidding and joking may have an element of truth to them and, if continued, can be hurtful.

In our current electronic age, it’s easier to be mean and inappropriate. Text messages and posts to social media are impersonal. There does not seem to be any reality to them. It is very different to have a face to face talk with someone rather than sending a text message.

There are real consequences to letting inappropriate behavior continue even if it does not lead to illegal behavior. Absenteeism can rise because an employee, who is being subjected to this type of behavior, may not want to come to work. Co-workers can watch the effect the behavior has on the person subjected to it and it hurts morale. Production rates can go down. Profitability suffers.

It seems odd to me that we are now having to teach employees to be civil and respectful to one another. When I was growing up, I was taught to respect my elders by my parents and teachers. The way some of my teachers taught respect would not be allowed these days, but that is another story. Employees do not have to like one another but do have to coexist and work together while they are at work.

Conducting harassment training may need to include components regarding respect and civility. Contact me if you would like help, Toni Ahl, (502) 553-7648 or eeoadvantage@gmail.com.

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