Harassment in the workplace takes many forms. Although sexual harassment has stayed in the headlines recently, thanks to the #MeToo movement, bullying and assaults against workers based on their race, religion, age, disability and other characteristics are equally serious and illegal.
Workplace harassment laws match the federal laws to protect employees’ rights. These laws, under both state and federal, give harassed and/or bullied workers powerful tools to hold employers accountable for failing to protect them.
The first step toward invoking protection under a law like the Civil Rights Act of 1964 or the Americans With Disability Act (“ADA”) is to recognize what constitute legally actionable harassment. So, to quote the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”), “Harassment is unwelcome conduct that is based on race, color, religion, sex (including pregnancy), national origin, age (40 or older), disability or genetic information.
Workplace harassment becomes unlawful where:
- Enduring the offensive conduct becomes a condition of continued employment, or
- The conduct is severe or pervasive enough to create a work environment that a reasonable person would consider intimidating, hostile, or abusive.”
To take this definition apart a little bit and put it into practical terms, an employee cannot claim to be suffering from harassment when they invite or willingly participate in potentially uncomfortable conduct. The actions must be uninvited and unappreciated to provide the basis for a harassment complaint and lawsuit.
It is also important to note that neither a single request for a date nor a playful remark constitute harassment. The problem must come up repeatedly, be serious enough to warrant a call to the police, or cause the victim to quit or seriously consider quitting.
Report Harassment to HR or a Trusted Supervisor First
Under workplace harassment laws, a victim of harassment can consult with an employee rights attorney at any time. Doing this before filing a formal complaint can be helpful for understanding the process for pursuing a complaint and considering the possible results of taking action. A lawyer who has helped other harassment victims will also have advice on how to write a complaint and which types of evidence will support a claim.
Whether a lawyer is consulted or not, the first place to go with a harassment complaint is human resources or a supervisor. Employers are required to have processes for receiving and investigating complaints. Agencies like the EEOC and courts that handle workplace handle workplace harassment cases want to see that those processes were followed.
When a complaint filed with the employer fails to resolve the problem, a workplace harassment victim can then file a complaint with the agency that administers the applicable employee rights law. This is usually the EEOC, but a lawyer who represents harassment victims will know which agency to contact.
The agency will investigate the complaint and take one of three actions:
- Ask the employer to find a solution that protects the harassment victim,
- Issue a letter authorizing the victim to file a lawsuit against the employer, or
- File a lawsuit against the employer on behalf of the victim.
An Employer Cannot Retaliate Against an Employee Who Reports Harassment
No matter what else happens, an employee who files a complaint about workplace harassment cannot legally be fired, demoted or harassed for doing so. To quote the EEOC one more time: “Antidiscrimination laws also prohibit harassment against individuals in retaliation for filing a discrimination charge, testifying, or participating in any way in an investigation, proceeding, or lawsuit under these laws; or opposing employment practices that they reasonably believe discriminate against individuals, in violation of these laws.”
Contact our Workplace Harassment Attorney
Still, too many employers retaliate against workers despite knowing they can face legal consequences. It is not uncommon for a harassment victim to file a lawsuit that lists separate claims for harassment and retaliation. An employee rights attorney with Barkan Meizlish DeRose Cox, LLP, can provide advice on all types of potential workplace harassment and retaliation cases. To schedule a free and confidential consultation, call us at (614) 221-4221 or complete this contact form.