Sexual harassment is only one type of discriminatory harassment at work. Generally, harassment is any unwelcome discriminatory conduct in the workplace, that no reasonable employee should have to endure.
As indicated, workplace harassment is a form of employment discrimination. However, to be the illegal form of employment discrimination, workplace harassment must be based on race, color, religion, national origin, disability, genetics, age or sex; or it must occur in the form of retaliation.
Sex discrimination includes harassment based on gender, pregnancy, childbirth or abortion, and in several states and Federal employment, on the basis of sexual orientation (sexual preference), marital status or parental status. Disability discrimination includes harassment for having AIDS (acquired immune deficiency syndrome).
So, it follows that, to be the illegal form of harassment at work, the unwelcome conduct must violate one among the landmark discrimination laws listed on the next page.
The unwelcome conduct must also create an intimidating, offensive, abusive or hostile work environment, either for the victim who is the target of the unwelcome conduct or employees who witness it.
Lastly, the victim or witnesses must reasonably believe that tolerating the intimidating, offensive, abusive or hostile work environment is a condition of employment; in other words, the victim or witnesses must reasonably believe that they have no choice, but to endure the workplace harassment to keep their jobs.
According to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), the government agency responsible for enforcing Federal discrimination laws:
"Offensive conduct may include, but is not limited to, offensive jokes, slurs, epithets or name calling, physical assaults or threats, intimidation, ridicule or mockery, insults or put-downs, offensive objects or pictures, and interference with work performance."
The EEOC indicates that the offensive conduct must be pervasive or serious enough, such that a reasonable employee would consider it to be intimidating, hostile or abusive. Petty slights, simple teasing, offhand comments and minor annoyances aren't likely to constitute harassment at work according to the EEOC, at least not in the legal sense; neither are isolated incidents, unless extremely serious.
Even if each isolated incident is not extremely serious, enough isolated incidents might add up to extremely serious when a court views them as a whole.
For example, let's say that your boss has teasingly called you a "rookie" a couple of times while criticizing your work, because you're a new-hire working a probationary period. No matter how annoying the nickname might be to you, your boss using it while criticizing your work is not likely to fall under the legal definition of workplace harassment, even if you disagree with his or her criticism.
But, if your boss is a bigoted bully who often shouts racial or gender epithets at you while criticizing your work, then it could very well fall under the legal definition of workplace harassment, even if your performance really is below par.
That's just a speculative, fictional example. Contact the EEOC or consult an attorney to be sure about your situation. More about that is on the next page.