What is Discriminatory Harassment: The University’s nondiscrimination policy applies broadly to students, employees, and visitors. Hostile environment is a commonly used term but from a legal and policy perspective, a hostile environment is a form of discriminatory harassment. Harassment means unwelcome or offensive conduct which has the purpose or effect of interfering with an individuals’ work or academic environment or creating an intimidating hostile, offensive or otherwise working or learning environment based upon a person’s race, color, sex, national origin, age, disability, religion, sexual orientation, gender identity, gender expression, or protected veteran’s status. The University’s Office of Equal Opportunity and Affirmative Action (OEO/AA) is responsible for the University’s nondiscrimination policies.
Many people have heard the term “hostile environment” in the context of sexual harassment but a “hostile environment” can also include harassment because of race, color, national origin, age, disability, sexual orientation, gender identity, gender expression and protected veteran’s status. For harassment not related to discrimination, contact Human Resources.
What constitutes a hostile environment? What does it look like? What are the range of scenarios that people might experience?
A hostile environment can be created in many ways. Verbal comments, text messages, pictures, graphics, graffiti and physical conduct can create a hostile environment. This might look like racial slurs, comments about a person’s national origin, or behavior or words that mock, demean, put down, disparage, threaten or ridicule others based upon race, color, sex, national origin, age, disability, religion, sexual orientation, gender identity/expression and protected veteran’s status. An isolated statement, even if rude and offensive, generally does not constitute a hostile environment. Occasional insensitive and off-hand comments, even if inappropriate or unprofessional, will generally not create a hostile environment. The focus is whether the behavior, as a whole, affecting a person’s education or working “environment.” In order to interfere with a person’s work or educational environment, generally the conduct must be severe, recurring and pervasive so that it interferes with your ability to fulfill your work and academic pursuits.
Although an occasional comment may not constitute a violation of the University’s nondiscrimination policy, other provisions of University policy governing student and employee conduct may apply. It is important to mention that the University, in terms of student, visitor, and employee conduct, has an interest in preventing discrimination and harassment. For example, if a department has an employee who tells an inappropriate joke then other employees begin to participate in similar types of comments, believing that such behavior is condoned, the workplace can then develop into a hostile environment for those that find such conduct unwelcome and offensive.
If someone feels like they are experiencing a hostile environment, what options are open to them to deal with the situation? How do they report (are there multiple outlets, what are the differences)?
The first step is to tell the individual that their comments are unwelcome and unwanted. Sometimes this may be difficult but once you have made it clear that their comments are not welcome, the individual has clearly been notified that you find their behavior unwelcome and offensive. Once the individual clearly understands the behavior isn’t welcome yet continues to engage in similar behavior, disciplinary action may be appropriate. There are many options on the University campus that can assist you in addressing the unwanted and unwelcome behavior. The Office of the Dean of Students, Human Resources, and the Office of Equal Opportunity are all avenues that can assist you in addressing the unwelcome behavior.
How are issues like these handled to protect the person dealing with hostility while also being fair to the respondent? What are the consequences to those who create hostile environments?
The Office of Equal Opportunity is neutral and impartial whose purpose in an investigation is to determine the facts. Both parties are provided an opportunity to provide their side of the story. Obtaining both the perspective of the person dealing with the hostility as well as the person alleged to have engaged in the behavior is important in terms of treating both parties fairly. Although both parties are given an opportunity to provide their side of the story, it is important to remember that it doesn’t matter whether the behavior was intended to hurt the other individual. An investigation by the Office of Equal Opportunity would look at whether a reasonable person would take offense to the unwanted or unwelcome behavior.