Facing harassment at work? You’re not alone. Today, 30 percent of all claims filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission allege incidents of harassment on the job, and those numbers are increasing.
While the best solution for dealing with harassment is always to let supervisors or managers know or to cooperate with your HR department to make suitable arrangements, this may not always suffice. Sometimes, the best way to approach situations of harassment on the job is to consider your legal options and work with an experienced attorney to take the steps necessary to hold your employer accountable.
The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has put forward a fairly broad definition of workplace harassment, and it’s helpful for both employers and employees to have a good understanding of the concept. Harassment can be described as unwelcome conduct that results in abuse, hostility or intimidation. Harassment becomes illegal under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act when it involves discrimination based on race, color, national origin, sex, religion, age or disability.
Hostile work environment, a related legal claim, is a similar concept. Hostile work environment is a form of harassment and has two elements regarding offensive conduct: 1) enduring the conduct makes it difficult or impossible to do one’s job 2) the conduct is so severe or pervasive that a reasonable person would consider it abusive, hostile or intimidating.
Defining the concepts behind harassment means that not all behavior qualifies as illegal harassment in the workplace. Mere teasing, for instance, may not make the grade when it comes to pleading harassment against an employer in court or in a charge filed with the EEOC. Similarly, sporadic and infrequent offenses that do not rise to the “severe and pervasive” standard may be difficult to plead as well.
Harassment can take on a number of forms in the workplace. For example, harassment may include name calling, mockery, bullying, the use of offensive objects or paraphernalia, racial slurs and epithets and behavior that interferes or limits work performance. It does not necessarily involve only a supervisor and worker as the victim. It can occur between co-workers and victims can include any worker who is adversely affected by the harassment.
Harassment Claims at the State Level
While much of the law on harassment is defined in federal law, states, too often include protection for workers from harassment in the workplace. Just about every state with anti- discrimination laws in place also includes provisions addressing harassment.
For example, in California, state law prohibits workplace harassment based on several categories including actual or perceived ancestry, genetic information, gender, gender identity, gender expression, marital status, and medical condition in addition to the the traditional categories stated in federal discrimination law.
California law also makes another explicit requirement. Employers are legally required to prevent harassment toward employees, applicants and independent contractors. This means that an employer must take action to address any harassment that it becomes aware of or has reason to know about. Simply dismissing reports of harassment or refusing to acknowledge a complaint from possible victims could leave the company open to liability.
Your Legal Options
When you think you’re experiencing harassment in the workplace, what steps should you take to ensure that you stay in compliance with the law?
First, an employee should consider the nature of the harassment they’ve experienced (or witnessed, in the case of third -party harassment claims). Is the harassment merely an irregularly occurring annoyance or is it severe, offensive behavior or pervasive offenses that occur frequently over a period of time?
It may help to take a look at a few relevant cases involving workplace harassment to help in determining whether your experiences would meet legal requirements. Once case, EEOC v. Wells Fargo Bank, is a good illustration of same-sex harassment. The case involved allegations that female managers exposed four female workers to offensive sexual comments, gestures and images. Although the case reached settlement, it’s an important example of the EEOC’s analysis of harassment cases.
Also, take note of how your employer responds to your complaints or disclosures concerning the harassment. Employees must remember that an employer could be immediately liable for harassment from a supervisor that results in termination or other adverse employment decisions. This means that if your harassment involves a supervisor who has fired you from your job, cut your wages, or refused promotion, there’s a chance that your employer would be held automatically liable in a court of law.
It’s also important to remember that an employer may have certain defenses to your complaints of harassment. If an employer is able to prove that it took reasonable steps to prevent the harassment or to correct it, the employer may be able to defeat a hostile work environment claims. The claims can also be defeated if the employer is able to prove that an employee failed to take advantage of the corrective measures the employer put forth in order to prevent further harassment.
More Legal Options for Addressing Harassment
Once you have established that your complaint about harassment is a valid one, it’s time to contact an employment discrimination attorney that is capable of assisting you. An employment discrimination attorney can help, even in the earliest stages of your claim, before the case comes to court. Receiving sound legal counseling about the best way to file a grievance with your company or about filing a charge with the EEOC can be an invaluable benefit.
Keep in mind that filing a charge with the EEOC can be the beginning of formally holding your employer accountable for harassment you’ve experienced on the job. An employee has only 180 days from the date of the last harassing incident to file a charge with the EEOC, however, so it’s important to take action quickly if you’ve decided to file a charge. Getting the assistance of a well-qualified, experienced attorney is the best way to ensure that you do everything necessary for a successful claim.