Workplace Harassment: Everything You Need to Know
Workplace harassment refers to any situation in which an employee is being illegally harassed or discriminated against by someone else in the workplace. 8 min read
What is Workplace Harassment?
Workplace harassment refers to any situation in which an employee is being illegally harassed or discriminated against by someone else in the workplace. Harassment can be caused by many different things and be caused by anyone from another employee to a supervisor to a customer. In order for something to be considered harassment, it has to be based on a protected trait.
In many different federal, state, and local areas, harassment could also be deemed a type of employment discrimination. Discrimination is any kind of verbal or physical harassment based on a person’s religion, race, or sex. Harassment often creates a bad work environment and could interfere with an employee’s ability to continue doing their job successfully. If a person feels abused, insulted, threatened, or intimated at work, that kind of treatment could be considered harassment by the current legal standards.
The Different Types of Workplace Harassment
- Supervisor Harassment: This occurs when a person in a management position harasses an employee beneath them, making that employee feeling discriminated against or intimidated in some way.
- Sexual Harassment: This kind of harassment is not based solely on verbal abuse or physical touch alone. It could be something like circulating pornographic images around the offices or writing inappropriate emails to other co-workers.
- Non-Sexual Harassment: This occurs when a person is the recipient of actions or language that could be deemed as discriminatory, insulting, or threatening.
- Physical Conduct: Anything that involves touching another employee whether it is groping (sexual harassment), hitting, striking, punch, kicking, or pushing.
- Verbal Harassment: This is probably one of the most common kinds of harassment in the workplace and it involves words that could be deemed threatening or discriminatory.
- Co-Worker Harassment: When one employee treats another employee in an unlawful way at the workplace.
Sexual harassment is not solely limited to just co-workers in the work place. Anytime someone makes an inappropriate comment about another person’s gender or sexual orientation in an insulting way is guilty of sexual harassment. Asking another employee sexual questions is considered sexual harassment. Any time someone touches another person it could be considered sexual harassment, especially when it involves rubbing, pinching, or patting another person. When someone makes sexual comments about an employee’s body, apparel, or overall appearance, this is considered sexual harassment. There are other more obvious forms of sexual harassment including offensive sexual behavior, comments, whistling, gesturing, lewd jokes, sending inappropriate letters, notes, and emails, and circulating sexual images in the office.
Non-Sexual Workplace Harassment
Non-sexual workplace harassment takes many different forms. When a negative comment is made toward another employee regarding their religious beliefs, this is considered harassment. Any racist remark is harassment. Making fun of another person’s culture could be deemed workplace harassment. Sharing inappropriate or offensive images, emails, letters, videos, or notes about another person in the office is harassment. Mocking a person’s physical or mental disability would be classified as harassment. Other forms of non-sexual harassment include wearing inappropriate, offensive clothing (especially in regards to someone’s ethnicity) or repeatedly insulting a person’s intelligence.
Workplace harassment doesn’t refer solely to instances where someone says or does something offensive, discriminatory, or threatening to another employee. There a certain questions that an employer cannot ask of an employee without breaking federal or state law. During an interview with an employee or potential employee, said employee reserves the right to not answer certain questions an employer might be asking. Here are a few questions that are illegal to ask:
- “How old are you?”
- “What is your birth date?”
- “When did you graduate high school/college/etc.?
- “What does your spouse do?”
- “How much does your spouse make?”
- “Is English your first language?”
- “Are you a citizen of the United States?”
- “Are your parents citizens of the Untied State?”
- “What is your religious affiliation?”
- “Are you planning on have children/more children?”
- “How much do you weigh?”
- “Do you have any specific mental or physical limitations?”
- “What is your credit score?”
- “What is our current salary?”
- “Are you married?”
- “What is your political persuasion?”
How to Handle Harassment in the Workplace
After somebody in the workplace has been harassed, the first thing that the victim needs to do is confront the harasser. Later on, should a lawsuit be filed, the victim can show that they did indeed approach the harasser and attempted to make them aware that they were offended by the harassing comments or behavior. If the issue persists and worsens over time, the next thing to do is to write an incident report. Make a couple copies of this document so that you have them for yourself and can give them to relevant parties (like the human resources department or your boss). Next, make an internal complaint with your employer. Since it is unlikely that you have ever filed a complaint before, you probably don’t know how to do it. By going to the human resources department, they can help you file a complaint. You will then be given a letter. Review it carefully and follow the instructions on it. When the victim files a complaint, it shows the company that there is good reason to look into the matter and come up with a solution for it. Additionally, now that the company has been made aware of the problem, they are now responsible for addressing and resolving it.
For your own records that might be used by your employer later on, jot down the date and time that the incident occurred as well as who the harasser was. Getting as much detail recorded as possible is important for making a stronger case and making it easier for the company to take the appropriate action. Probably the best and swiftest way to put an end to a case of discrimination or harassment is by going to your employer immediately after the incident occurred. You will want to submit a claim to EEOC (Equal Employment Opportunity Commission). This is very important because if you don’t first file a charge, a future lawsuit will be automatically thrown out. An interesting twist to harassment is that the victim of the incident does not always have to be the person who was actually harassed. A victim could be anyone who was affected by the incident.
It is necessary to keep in mind that a victim of harassment only has a 180 day window to file their claim with the EEOC once the incident has happened. This claimed can be filed by calling the telephone number 800-669-400, visiting the EEOC location in person, or mailing a letter to EEOC. When you file a claim, you will need to include your full name, mailing address, phone number, and information about your place of employment as well as your employer. Once the EEOC gets your claim, they can begin an investigation. You need to be ready to share as much information about the incident as you can remember (that is why writing things down as soon as they happen is so important). The more detail you can provide, the better it is for the investigation.
You also don’t want to wait long after the incident has occurred since any witnesses who might have seen it could have left the business once you decided to file a claim. If the harassment occurred over email, you want to keep a record of those emails and file a claim before those emails get automatically deleted. When you bring your case to human resources, you want to be armed with as much detailed information as possible. And it should go without saying that there is never a good reason to hide any information that would help your case.
Once you have filed a claim and the EEOC has begun their investigation, there is a good chance that they will end up visiting your place of employment. Also, note that your employer can’t punish you for filing a claim and for said employer to do so would be a clear violation of the law. When an employee files a complaint with the EEOC, the employer is not allowed to fire or demote the harassed employee simply because they filed the complaint.
You might also want to consider hiring an attorney who specializes in employment issues and harassment cases like yours. Once you have written up a claim, an attorney can review it and determine what the strengths of it might be. A lawyer will also be able to advise you on what the next best steps are and inform you of your rights as a victim of harassment. Be aware that if you plan to sue the harasser or the company that employs the harasser, you only have three months to do so. Additionally, you might live in a state that requires to you file another separate complaint with the state’s fair employment practices agency.
What You Can Expect When Your Case is Under Investigation and Tips for How to Handle it
Have realistic expectations regarding how the investigation turns out. The EEOC does everything in their power to conduct a thorough investigation and settle on a fair, just outcome. Definitely don’t expect to file your complaint with the EEOC and get a response from them within 24 hours. It can take them several days to receive your complaint, review it, and get back to you, but rest assured, they will. If you are the owner of the company and one of your employees is filing a harassment complaint with the EEOC, this is not a good reason to fire them. In fact, doing so could have some serious repercussions. Additionally, firing the employee who harassed the other employee is usually seen as an extreme measure (unless it was a very extreme case of harassment). There are usually other ways the company punishes the harasser. This punishment could be anything from a writing warning, getting transferred to a new department or demoted, or temporarily suspended.
Examples of Harassment in the Workplace
- A group of female employees at the office all separately claim that they have each felt as though they were on the receiving end of sexual harassment, whether verbally or physically, by a higher-up such as a manager.
- An employee filed a complaint stating that his boss made insulting remarks such as, “He looks like the kind of person who would bomb the Yankee Stadium.” A lawsuit followed and the company settled for $40,000.
- The Vice President of a major corporation repeatedly sexually harassed a female employee for years by commenting on her physical appearance, making lewd remarks, and sending unwelcome phone calls and emails for years. After years of repeated harassment, the female employee filed a lawsuit and was awarded 7.5 million dollars.
- An African-American employee endured a hostile work environment in which a co-worker routinely made racist slurs and circulated racist photos in the office. After filing a lawsuit and dealing with the matter in court, the jury found the co-worker guilty of racial harassment and awarded the victim $150,000.
- An administrative assistant with a physical disability was subject to insensitive, harassing comments about her disability from two other co-workers. The harassment continued for months, with one of the employees at one point mocking the administrative assistant by mimicking her.
- A man who works in an office setting happens to be Jewish and when his supervisor finds out, he is subjected to offensive Holocaust jokes and routinely mocked about money.
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