It’s All In The Name

Harassment and discrimination policies are standard in most business settings to ensure that employers and employees are aware of what constitutes harassment and discrimination and how to prevent such situations from occurring. It is customary for most people to equate harassment to only circumstances that are of a sexual nature; however, harassment takes on many forms, most of which have nothing to do with sex or sexually-explicit actions or language. Harassment may take on the form of other abusive conduct that may be perceived as hostile or malicious. When this type of conduct is targeted at a person who may qualify in a protected group, based on race, gender, religion, etc., it can also constitute unlawful discrimination if the conduct results in an adverse action against the protected person.

Less obvious types of discrimination and harassment may come in the form of verbal ques which are meant to identify a person’s physical features or other characteristics. For example, referring to a tall person as a “bean pole” or an attractive person as “eye candy.” Most of us are familiar with playful names or descriptors amongst friends and family, but in a work setting, there is no reason that anyone should be identified by any other term or label than their proper name or position title. Assigning labels to an individual or group to describe their size/weight, gender, race/color typically has no legitimate business purpose. It can inadvertently become a mechanism for employers or employees to secretly use a code word or phrase to describe someone that may also have a negative impact or perception of that individual’s abilities, reputation, future position assignments and more.

There are legitimate business reasons which may require that an employee be described in detail. For example, loss prevention agents often have to describe employees who may be suspected of unlawful activity when a report is made to a police agency. In situations where an employee is seeking a reasonable accommodation for a qualified impairment, the employee’s physical attributes may need to be known when assessing functional limitations. Any time that descriptors are used to identify an employee or group of employees or job candidates it is imperative that it is done for legitimate, lawful purpose.

For more information regarding harassment and discrimination policies and prevention, review California Government Code section 12940 or visit the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing’s website at