The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission

Questions and Answers for Small Employers on Employer Liability for Harassment by Supervisors

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act (Title VII) prohibits harassment of an employee based on race, color, sex, religion, or national origin. The Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA) prohibits harassment of employees who are 40 or older on the basis of age, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) prohibits harassment based on disability, and the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act of 2008 (GINA) prohibits harassment of an employee based on genetic information. All of the anti-discrimination statutes enforced by the EEOC prohibit retaliation for complaining of discrimination or participating in complaint proceedings.

The Supreme Court issued two major decisions in June of 1998 that explained when employers will be held legally responsible for unlawful harassment by supervisors. The EEOC's Guidance on Employer Liability for Harassment by Supervisors examines those decisions and provides practical guidance regarding the duty of employers to prevent and correct harassment and the duty of employees to avoid harassment by using their employers' complaint procedures.

1. When does harassment violate federal law?

2. Does the guidance apply only to sexual harassment?

3. When is an employer legally responsible for harassment by a supervisor?

4. Who qualifies as a "supervisor" for purposes of employer liability?

5. What is a "tangible employment action"?

6. How might harassment culminate in a tangible employment action?

7. What should employers do to prevent and correct harassment?

8. What should an anti-harassment policy say?

9. What are important elements of a complaint procedure

10. Is a complaint procedure adequate if employees are instructed to report harassment to their immediate supervisors?

11. How should an employer investigate a harassment complaint?

12. How should an employer correct harassment?

13. Are there other measures that employers should take to prevent and correct harassment?

14. Does an employee who is harassed by his or her supervisor have any responsibilities?

15. Is an employer legally responsible for its supervisor's harassment if the employee failed to use the employer's complaint procedure?

16. If an employee complains to management about harassment, should he or she wait for management to complete the investigation before filing a charge with EEOC?

Further guidance on harassment can be found in the 1999 Guidance on Employer Liability for Unlawful Harassment by Supervisors; the 1980 Guidelines on Sexual Harassment; the 1990 Policy Statement on Current Issues in Sexual Harassment; the 1990 Policy Statement on Sexual Favoritism; and the 1994 Enforcement Guidance on Harris v. Forklift Sys., Inc.. These can all be found on EEOC's web site http://www.eeoc.gov. They are also available by calling the EEOC's Publications Distribution Center (800-669-3362 or TTY 800-800-3302), or send inquiries to:

Equal Employment Opportunity Commission
Office of Communications and Legislative Affairs
131 M Street, NE
Washington, D.C. 20507


This page was last modified on April 1, 2010.

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