What is Discriminatory Harassment?

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  • Written By: Elizabeth West
  • Edited By: Allegra J. Lingo
  • Last Modified Date: 20 September 2019
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In the workplace, discriminatory harassment is defined as denigrating and abusive conduct that creates a hostile environment and affects a victim's job performance. The harassment is illegal when based on race, sex, religion, national origin, disability, or age. Acts that fall under discriminatory harassment include slurs, jokes, and offensive material either posted or shared that causes distress. There are numerous US statutes prohibiting this conduct, including Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990.

According to the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), the conduct must be persistent and cause a reasonable person to see it as abusive. Minor teasing would not constitute discriminatory harassment. An isolated incident may qualify, but generally this behavior happens repeatedly. Many occurrences over time establish a pattern, which helps validate charges.

Workplace discrimination can take place at the hiring level if applicants are turned down for discriminatory criteria. It can also affect an existing employee’s promotions or assignments. For example, if an employer reduces an older employee’s benefits based solely on age, that would constitute a violation of anti-discriminatory laws. Employers are also prohibited from retaliating against workers who file harassment complaints.


Discriminatory harassment is common in schools when students bully others over race, sexual orientation, or socioeconomic status. Many schools in the US are adopting anti-bullying policies that cover discriminatory harassment and protect students. School personnel are moving away from the notion that bullying and peer harassment are normal childhood and adolescent behavior. This change has come about after numerous incidents in which students suffering from physical abuse, taunting, and cyber-bullying have reacted aggressively against their tormentors or committed suicide.

Victims of discriminatory harassment should first try to stop the abuse by using established policies before filing charges. Schools and employers are required by law to have these policies and make them available to students and workers if needed. Complainants need to be filed with the EEOC within 180 days from the time of occurrence, so it benefits victims to handle it as soon as possible. The EEOC may sue on the victim's behalf or provide a right-to-sue notice so the victim can file independently.

Many cases of discriminatory harassment can be resolved within the company itself. If a lawsuit is necessary, defendants may have to pay restitution including punitive damages, pay back wages for terminated employees, or make reasonable accommodations for disabled employees or students. The harm to an employer's reputation can mean a loss of business if they offend potential clients. Education can help reduce discrimination, promote tolerance, and prevent future incidents.



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