What is Considered “Workplace Harassment” in Iowa?

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Posted by Tom Foley

Not all rude, obnoxious, or even nasty things a coworker or supervisor might say or do are grounds for bringing a workplace harassment claim in Iowa. There are no state or federal general anti-bullying or anti-harassment laws. Even if your employer has internal policies that prohibit bullying or harassment, that alone will not give you the legal right to bring a claim.

Both Iowa and Federal law protect specific groups of individuals from harassment in the workplace. To have a legal claim for harassment, the harassment must be related to you being a member of one or more of these protected groups. As an employee, you may fall into one of these protected groups based on your:

  • Age
  • Race or skin color
  • Sex / Gender identity
  • Sexual orientation
  • Pregnancy
  • Disability
  • Nationality
  • Religion

If you are facing unwelcome remarks or conduct at work that targets you specifically because you belong to one of these protected groups, then you may have the basis for an Iowa harassment lawsuit.  If the harassment is not specifically because you belong to one of these groups, it’s unlikely you have a claim.

For example, if your boss or co-workers make comments about you because you are tall, you probably do not have a viable harassment claim, no matter how severe and persistent the teasing becomes. However, if your boss or co-workers make similar or worse comments because you are gay or Muslim, you probably have a claim so long as the other factors discussed below also exist.

What Types of Behavior Constitute Harassment at Work?

While the law requires the harassment to be based on your membership in one or more of the protected groups, the law does not require that the harassment happen in a certain way. Harassment can happen through words and/or behavior. It can be in writing or it can be face-to-face. It might involve physical contact or it could involve gesturing.

Some examples of behavior that could amount to unlawful harassment are:

  • Offensive communications – whether by email, written memos or notes, texts or instant messages, etc.
  • Offensive jokes, ridicules, or insults
  • Offensive gesturing or body language
  • Offensive comments or statements about appearance, clothing, etc.
  • Unwanted touching or physical contact

How to Prove a Workplace Harassment Claim in Iowa

To succeed on a claim of harassment, you must prove that the harassment was significant enough to actually affect the terms or conditions of your employment. There are two ways of proving this:

1.      Quid Pro Quo Harassment

One way to prove that the harassment is affecting your employment is to prove that your supervisor is holding some specific job benefit over you in exchange for you dealing with inappropriate words or conduct.

This is what the law calls “quid pro quo” harassment.  Quid pro quo means “something for something.”  A classic example would be if a supervisor asks you out on a date, you turn him or her down, and then the next day your supervisor fires you.  Or your supervisor tells you he will give you a promotion if you sleep with him, and when you refuse, the supervisor gives the position to another employee.

Getting fired is the most extreme example of a “quid pro quo” sexual harassment claim. Other negative actions taken against you can also be grounds for “quid pro quo” harassment. Giving you a poor performance review, denying you a promotion, demoting you, or withholding a raise are all examples of negative consequences that can give you the basis for a harassment claim in Iowa.

2.      Hostile Work Environment Harassment

In a hostile work environment claim, the harasser might be a supervisor, but it might also be another co-worker.  In this kind of claim, no one is specifically holding your job, your pay, a promotion, or other job benefit over you. Instead, they are engaging in harassing behavior that is tied to a protected classification and that is severe or pervasive enough to create a hostile work environment.

The classic example of a hostile work environment is one where the male employees repeatedly tell lewd jokes, discuss their sex lives, or make comments about the appearance or anatomy of female employees that the female employees find offensive.

Even though harassment can take on many different forms, a single incident is not sufficient to create a hostile work environment claim except in the most extreme of circumstances. Instead, to prove a hostile work environment harassment case in Iowa, you have to show that the harassment was severe or was repeated, ongoing, and pervasive.  The nature, frequency, and duration of the harassment must be so significant that your work environment becomes hostile or abusive.

If you have further questions about whether you have a workplace harassment claim, contact RSH Legal today at 1-319-774-1783.

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