No feeling can be worse than facing a work situation involving daily or frequent harassment. This situation is covered in employment law with provision addressing workplace harassment and hostile environment laws meant to protect workers for such environments. These laws are based on a legal requirement that United States workplaces be discrimination and harassment free.
If you are being harassed at work, you’ll need some direction about the wisest action to take to get the harassment to stop. The goal is to get the situation resolved as quickly as possible in a way that can get the environment back to one that does not interfere with the performance of your job. Therefore, one of the first step you can take is to clearly and firmly communicate to the offender that the speech or conduct in question is unwelcome.
1. File a Company Complaint
Beyond clear communication, the best step to take is to file a complaint with your supervisor or human resources department. Letting the harasser know that you want the offensive behavior to stop means that you have done your part to prevent the harassment and to keep the situation from escalating.
If the harasser continues to harass even after being told to stop, it’s a good idea to document such a response and to keep a detailed record to your efforts to put an end to the harassing behavior. should the problem develop into a more serious one, you’ll need documentation of these efforts as proof of the type and frequency of the harassment, the worker’s response to requests to stop as well as the action you took to prevent the harassment.
2. File a Charge with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC)
If complaining to company administrators doesn’t get the results you desire, consider filing a charge with the EEOC. Doing so involves the strict observance of certain deadlines, however.
Filing a charge with the EEOC must be done no later than 180 days after the last harassing offense. It begins with an intake interview and concludes with a Notice-of-Right-to-Sue if the EEOC decides that there is no violation. The Notice means that the filer now has permission to pursue the case in a court of law.
Employees being harassed at work must realize that not all harassment is unlawful. When deciding to file a charge it is important to know what legally constitutes harassment at work. The law categorizes workplace harassment as conduct or speech which creates a hostile work environment. Hostile work environments are those that significantly interfere with an employee’s ability to perform his or her job.
In order for courts to consider a work environment hostile the harassment an employee experiences must be more than a random off-hand remark or teasing. Courts expect employees to prove that a company has allowed severe or perversive behavior to go on over time, doing little or nothing about it though the employee has made it known that the behavior is unwelcome.
The EEOC has released guidance on the the harassment qualifying as actionable under the laws the agency is meant to enforce, including Title VII. It is important to consult these guidelines prior to filing a charge in order to get a better understanding of the EEOC’s analysis of your case.
3. Initiate a Lawsuit
There are two considerations that should take place before filing a lawsuit due to a co-worker or supervisor’s harassing behavior. First, consider that a lawsuit cannot be filed before filing a charge with the EEOC in most circumstances. Second, consider that a workplace harassment/ hostile work environment lawsuit cannot be filed without the assistance of a competent attorney.
Many of the workplace harassment/hostile environment laws require that complainants exhaust all administrative remedies before pursuing litigation. This means that an employee being harassed at work must file a charge with the EEOC first before any lawsuits can be filed. Without a Notice-of-Right-to-Sue, employees do not have the authority to file a lawsuit in court and may get their suit rejected on procedural grounds before it can be heard by a judge.
Another point to consider is that the complexity of workplace harassment/ hostile work environment cases almost always requires the assistance of an attorney experienced in employment law. When selecting a lawyer be sure to check online directories such as Martindale Hubbell for information about the attorney’s professional standing and reputation.
Elements of a Workplace Harassment Claim
Certain elements of harassment must be proven in order for an employee being harassed at work to successfully bring a claim in a court of law. Generally speaking, the conduct in question should be based on discriminatory acts – actions adverse to any one of the protected categories outlined in employment laws such as race, color, national origin, age, disability or religion. Also, the behavior in question must rise to a severity and pervasiveness that courts deem actionable.
Thus, an employee must show two elements of a hostile work environment existed in order to bring a successful claim:
- There is sufficient conduct or speech that is severe and pervasive.
- The conduct can be attributed to an employer based on a specific aspect of the case.
The second elements involves proving that the harassing worker is in such a position of authority that his or her conduct and behavior can be imputed to the employer. According to the EEOC, an employer can be held liable if the harasser is a supervisor, manager, co-worker or even an agent of a company.
Coworkers and agents can be held liable when an employee is being harassed at work due to the doctrine of vicarious liability. If the employer knew or should have known of the harassment/hostile environment but did nothing to prevent it, the non-supervisor’s action can be attributed to the employer and the employer can be held liable for harassment.
If You are Being Harassed at Work…
Remember, the first things to do if you are being harassed at work is to put forth clear communication that the harassment will not be tolerated. Beyond this you may need the help of a competent attorney to file a charge with the EEOC or to file a civil action in court. Whichever route you choose, it’s important to be informed about the type of behavior and conduct that constitutes harassment and the specific elements of unlawful harassment which would lead to a successful claim of harassment in a court of law.