Employers are legally obligated to provide a safe place for their employees, and that includes keeping them away from harassing behavior. 

What is and isn’t considered harassment?

There are a number of ways that an employee can be harassed, however the general term refers to any unwelcome conduct that is directed towards someone else because of that person’s race, color, religion, sex, ethnicity, age, or disability. Harassment also covers unwelcome conduct that is directed towards a woman because she is pregnant.

But, what exactly is unwelcome conduct?

The term is quite vague, so it’s understandable that employees may be unaware that they’re victims of harassment. Unwelcome conduct can be defined in variety of ways, however the conduct generally refers to offensive jokes, slurs, physical violence or threats, mockery, insults, offensive images or any kind of deliberate interference to an employee’s performance in the workplace.

How can you tell when you’re being harassed or maybe just too sensitive?

The law doesn’t recognize an employee’s annoyance with another employee as harassment, and in fact, it often does not find isolated incidents to be harassment. Typically, harassment is a repetitive behavior that makes an employee feel uncomfortable, unsafe, intimidated or offensive. There’s a fine line that separates appropriate and inappropriate behavior in the workplace, but if you feel that you have to put up with the offensive behavior to hold onto your job or you now work in a hostile work environment, you are a victim of harassment.

How does the law protect you?

Because it is considered a form of discrimination, harassment violates Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 and the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990.

In some cases, the employer can be held liable for any harassment that occurs in the workplace. For example, if a supervisor’s harassment leads to the victim being terminated, taking a pay cut or passed over for a promotion, the employer is automatically viewed as a liable party in the eyes of the law.  The law also holds an employer liable when a supervisor’s inappropriate behavior creates a hostile work environment, with a few exceptions. If the employer can prove that either a) there was action taken to correct and prevent misconduct or b) the employee who was victimized did not take advantage of the employer’s offer to help prevent harassment, then the employer may not be held accountable for the supervisor’s actions.

It’s important for employees to understand that employers can be held liable when any of their employees harass others, whether it’s a supervisor, non-supervisor, or independent contractor. In addition, employers can be held liable if a non-employee harasses someone in the workplace as long as the employer had some sort of control over the individual. For example, a customer of a retailer would be under the control of the employer when he is on the employer’s property. If this customer continues to visit the retailer to harass an employee, the employer must take action if he becomes aware of the issue, otherwise he will be held liable for the customer’s behavior.

Many employees may be fearful of reporting offensive behavior and being retaliated against in return. Luckily, the law also protects employees who file, testify or participate in any way with discrimination charges in the workplace. As long as that employee was not acting in a malicious way, such as filing a fraudulent complaint, then he or she is completely protected by the law. Legally, the employer cannot retaliate against these employees without severe consequences.

How should you handle being harassed at work?

If you find yourself in a situation where you feel harassed, follow these steps to resolve the issue promptly:

Be straightforward.

Just like a bully in the schoolyard, the first step to stopping harassment is to confront the harasser. Legally, a victim of harassment must be able to prove that the conduct was unwelcome, so openly telling the harasser to stop will strengthen your case if he or she continues to behave inappropriately.

File an internal complaint.

The only time that you should start by filing a formal complaint is if you fear for your safety. In these situations, it is not wise to confront your harasser directly. In other cases, if a verbal confrontation does no good, then take the necessary steps to file an internal complaint with your employer. This will put your complaint in writing so if you do have to file a legal complaint, you will have proof that your employer was aware of the issue.

File an administrative charge.

If you plan on filing a lawsuit, then you must first file an administrative charge with the EEOC, otherwise your case will be immediately thrown out. Depending on the state you live in, you may also be required to file a charge with the state’s fair employment agency. Once a charge has been filed, your employer will be contacted and your claims will be investigated. The charge may be dismissed, or the EEOC may encourage you to mediate or settle the dispute without filing a lawsuit. In my cases, your claim will be processed and you’ll be given a legal right to move forward with your lawsuit.

File a lawsuit.

If you have been given the right to sue letter from the EEOC or your state’s fair employment agency, you can proceed with filing a lawsuit. It’s advised that you retain an attorney to assist you, especially when going up against a large employer who will probably have the financial ability to hire a team of highly skilled lawyers.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) takes harassment in the workplace very seriously, and investigates every complaint thoroughly. The EEOC will examine the details of the behavior and the context in which it occurred to determine whether harassment was committed and who is liable. No employee should ever fear filing a claim with the EEOC. It is every employee’s right to work in a safe workplace, and the EEOC will go to great lengths to ensure that right is defended on your behalf.