Speak up to protect yourself from unlawful workplace harassment
Workplace harassment can quickly drain the joy out of any job. While there’s a growing shift toward speaking up about abusive comments and conduct—the #MeToo movement marked a major change—plenty of people still feel pressured to stay silent.
Employees at every level—from hourly workers to those in senior management—, can feel silenced. Low wage earners and those who face power imbalances like immigration status may fear they’ll lose much-needed work or endanger their family’s safety if they report harassment. Those in management or executive roles may worry they’ll derail a career they have built over many years, burn bridges in their industry, or gain an unfair reputation for being difficult.
No one deserves to endure workplace harassment. It should never be a condition for continued employment or career advancement.
If you feel like you’re being harassed at work, early intervention, clear self-advocacy and documentation are your best strategies for ending the negative behavior and protecting your legal rights so you can move forward in your career. If the harassment doesn’t stop, or if your company retaliates against you, those strategies will also form the foundation for your legal complaint.
What is workplace harassment?
Legally, harassment occurs when a supervisor, coworker, vendor, client or customer makes an employee or group of employees feel threatened or abused, and that behavior centers on one or more protected characteristic, like race, religion, color, sex (including gender identity, pregnancy and sexual orientation), national origin, age, genetic information and disability.
Unfortunately, the law does not cover harassment when it is not based on one of these characteristics—e.g. you have an “equal opportunity jerk” for a boss. Indeed, not all toxic behavior is illegal. Leaders may micromanage. Coworkers may make passive-aggressive comments. Clients may let slip an inappropriate joke.
Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 protects workers against unlawful harassment, as does the Age Discrimination in Employment Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act.
According to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), harassment becomes illegal when:
- Putting up with the harassment is a requirement of employment.
- The harassment is so severe or ongoing that a “reasonable person” finds it abusive or hostile.
It’s also illegal to harass anyone already involved in a discrimination suit or EEOC complaint.
What does harassment look like?
Unfortunately, workers sometimes excuse away harassment because it doesn’t register as something clearly wrong or illegal, like a physical assault.
Harassment may take many forms, however, including:
- Offensive jokes based on race, sex, national origin, or disability
- Slurs and epithets
- Physical threats, as well as actual assaults
- The display of offensive pictures, signs, or symbols
- Mockery of one’s protected characteristic
Harassment can be sexual, psychological, physical, verbal or take place entirely online. And because it’s pervasive and hostile, victims can include onlookers—employees who aren’t the intended targets of the abuse.
Unlike some other forms of discrimination, harassment doesn’t need to lead to a lost opportunity in order to qualify as illegal. It doesn’t require a missed promotion or a job loss. The workplace itself is the problem.
What should you do if you believe you’re being harassed?
Employers have an obligation to protect their employees from harassment. Ideally, this is preventative work, with clear messaging around conduct, manager training and open channels for reporting issues. When a problem arises, companies that value their people, public reputation and productivity take swift action.
If you believe you’re being harassed at work, it’s sometimes productive to directly ask your harasser to stop. Not everyone will feel comfortable doing this, however, or it won’t be effective. Regardless, your next step is to put your concerns in writing and share them with HR. Aim for clarity here—be concise, polite and make note of the protected characteristics your harasser has targeted.
What actions should you expect from your employer?
Employers are liable for the behavior of employees, contractors or visitors if they know about harassment and choose not to act. They’re liable for the behavior of supervisors if the supervisors create a hostile environment or exert a negative influence on the career of the person being harassed.
Your employer should act quickly and keep you updated on progress. If HR suggests corrective opportunities, accept them or clearly voice why you feel they could expose you to further harassment. Employers can sometimes defend themselves against harassment claims if they argue the accuser didn’t work cooperatively.
Of course, if your employer responds with hostility—a demotion, for example, poor performance reviews or a dismissal—you may have a retaliation suit. While it’s sometimes challenging to prove harassment, retaliation is often quite clear. Again, it’s helpful to maintain records of your attempts to resolve the problem, as well as notes on the harasser’s actions and your own performance reviews.
A Georgia employment lawyer can help determine if you have a possible claim with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission or the Georgia Commission on Equal Opportunity. No one should feel unsafe or abused at work. While career mobility and advancement are undeniably important, so is advocating for a safe and healthy work environment.
Contact a Decatur employment lawyer today
At Radford & Keebaugh, we’re open and up front with our clients. We’ll take a look at your situation and give you our honest opinion. Our goal is to help you end harassment and move forward in your career. Contact us to talk over your situation.