An employer may be breaking the law if she creates a hostile work environment if she harasses or abuses employees, depending on the type of actions. State and federal statutes help prevent workplace violence and harassment, and companies can fill in gaps by creating a clause in a policy manual’s ethics guidelines.
The Equal Employment Opportunity Act and the Civil Rights Act of 1964 state that it is illegal for an employer to harass or abuse an employee because of his national origin, gender, race, skin color, marital status, age or disability. According to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which enforces the EEOA, harassment from an employer can include abusive language, physical misconduct and abuse, assault, derogatory comments, vandalism and slurs. Harassment at work is illegal if an employer’s actions cause an employee’s disability to worsen intentionally. According to the EEOC, harassment and verbal abuse may not be illegal if it comes in the form of teasing, “offhand comments” and some isolated incidents. If an employer harasses an employee outside of work and the actions are a result of discrimination, this may be illegal if the harassment is work-related.
Abuse from an employer can include shame, harassment, intimidation, coercion, put-downs, excessive demands, extremely overworking employees, belittling others, ignoring employee rights and inappropriate nonverbal behaviors. When some abuse occurs when protected actions, like whistle-blowing, are not involved, they may not be illegal. However, abusive treatment by an employer is illegal in the form of physical, sexual and vehicular assault. It is also illegal for an employer to coerce an employee to perform an unlawful action by threatening to abuse or further abuse the individual. If an employer has a sexual encounter with an employee who is a minor, the employer can be charged with sexual assault or statutory rape, depending on the incidence.
Employee Health and Safety
The Occupational Safety and Health act of 1970 offers employees protection in that it states that all individual have the right to work in safe and healthful environments. The primary objective of the OSH Act is to help prevent employee illnesses and injuries, there are instances in which it can protect workers from harassment or abusive treatment by an employer. If an employee, for example, reports she was harassed or abused by a supervisor to the company’s management, but there is a failure to properly address the situation, the company and the supervisor may be help accountable if the supervisor’s actions lead to an injury. Additionally, it is unlawful for an employer to not reduce or eliminate a workplace safety or health hazard as a means to harass or abuse employees.
Protection for Whistle-Blowers
Several acts in the United States protect employees who are whistle-blowers, who are individuals that report workplace violations to managers or the authorities. The Equal Pay Act of 1963, Civil Rights Act of 1964, Americans With Disabilities Act of 1990, OSH Act and the EEOA are examples of acts that offer whistle-blower protections. These acts state that it is unlawful for an employer to abuse or harass an employee because he filed a charge, complained or assisted in an investigation related to unsafe working conditions or illegal work practices. Like anti-discrimination workplace laws, an employee has the right to work in an environment free of retaliation, threats, abuse and intimidation if he is a whistle-blower.
- Counseling Outfitters; Employee Abuse in the Workplace; Terry L. Wynne
- Washington State Department of Labor and Industries; Workplace Bullying and Disruptive Behavior; April 2011
- U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission: Prohibited Employment Policies/Practices
- U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration: OSH Act of 1970
- U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration: The Whistle-Blower Protection Program
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