Workplace Harassment

Although workplace harassment can be subtle, it can devastate your workplace. Shame, anger, resentment and an abusive culture can result when harassment is allowed to fester. If your workplace environment seems hostile, you need to act quickly. The information that follows will help you determine if it is time to contact an attorney.

Harassment is a form of employment discrimination that violates Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 (ADEA), and the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA).

Harassment is unwelcome conduct that is based on race, color, religion, sex (including pregnancy), national origin, age (40 or older), disability or genetic information. Harassment becomes unlawful where 1) enduring the offensive conduct becomes a condition of continued employment, or 2) the conduct is severe or pervasive enough to create a work environment that a reasonable person would consider intimidating, hostile, or abusive. Anti-discrimination 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.

It is important to remember that merely working in an unpleasant environment, or for a difficult supervisor, does not rise to the level of unlawful harassment unless the hostile conduct is based on one of the protected characteristics mentioned above.  Usually, a single incident, unless it is extremely serious, will not support a harassment claim.

Offensive conduct may include, but is not limited to, offensive jokes, slurs, epithets or name calling, physical assaults or threats, intimidation, ridicule or mockery, insults or put-downs, offensive objects or pictures, and interference with work performance.

The employer is automatically liable for harassment by a supervisor that is proven to result in a negative employment action such as job loss, demotion, bad performance reviews, unfavorable shifts, less desirable project assignments, and so on.  If the supervisor’s harassment results in a hostile work environment rather than a negative employment action, the employer can avoid liability only if it can prove that: 1) it reasonably tried to prevent and promptly correct the harassing behavior; and 2) the employee unreasonably failed to take advantage of any preventive or corrective opportunities provided by the employer.

The employer will be liable for harassment by non-supervisory employees or non-employees over whom it has control (e.g., independent contractors or customers on the premises), if it knew, or should have known about the harassment, and failed to take prompt and appropriate corrective action.

Employees are encouraged to inform the harasser directly that the conduct is unwelcome and must stop. Employees should also report harassment to management at an early stage to prevent its escalation, and to put the employer on notice that harassment is occurring.  A knowledgeable lawyer can help determine whether harassment is occurring and with contacting the employer about the situation.

Employers can reduce their chances of being held liable by having a system in place to respond to complaints and monitoring the workplace for problems with harassment. This usually means policies, training, investigating complaints, and getting rid of people who harass others.  An experienced attorney can draft policies and provide training to help with this process.

As an experienced employment lawyer, Lynn Pundzak can help both workers and management deal with these types of issues.  Call Lynn at 513-564-9999.