European Approach to Discrimination and Harassment

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European law takes a very different approach to discrimination and harassment than our state and federal law. Here, discrimination and harassment have to be based on what the law calls a “protected class.” I have to discriminate or harass against someone because they belong to a group that the law has defined as deserving of protection. Examples of protected classes include race, gender, age (+ 40 under federal law, +21 under Minnesota law), sexual orientation (Minnesota and some other states), religion, disability, creed (Minnesota law) and marital status (Minnesota law).

For harassment to be illegal, it must be based on and tied to an individual’s protected class. If I harass you because I just don’t like you, not because you are black, or a woman, or Hispanic, then it isn’t illegal under our present laws. That falls more under the definition of what is called bullying, and isn’t covered under state or federal anti-discrimination law.

Europeans look at things very differently. There, they see discrimination as “dignity based.” If I discriminate or harass you and injure your personal dignity, that would be unlawful. It doesn’t matter if the harassment is tied to a protected class, provided that it injures one’s dignity. It is a very different approach and explains why workplace bullying can be the base of a claim in European countries.

Here is a link to a summary of a recent Italian Supreme Court decision that says an employee’s superior can be held liable for bullying in the workplace, and for consequent economic and non-pecuniary damages, when such behavior is intentionally damaging to the employee’s professional dignity. Here, individuals cannot be held liable under anti-discrimination statutes. Only the employer can.

The two continents have very different approaches to law that reflect the values of the societies and demonstrate what each considers important to protect.

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