Every employer has a legal duty to provide a safe work environment for their employees. The work environment should be free of harassment and discrimination. Unfortunately, this is not always the case. That is why it is important for employees to be knowledgeable of their legal rights and to know what actions they can take to remedy a hostile work environment.
What Is Harassment? And When Is It Illegal?
In terms of the law, harassment is defined as any unwelcome conduct that is directed towards someone because of that person’s race, gender, color, religion sex, ethnicity, age or disability. Furthermore, harassment also addresses unwelcome conduct that is directed towards a woman because she is pregnant.
According to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), “Harassment becomes unlawful where 1) enduring the offensive conduct becomes a condition of continued employment, or 2) the conduct is severe and pervasive enough to create a work environment that a reasonable person would consider intimidating, hostile, or abusive. “ (https://www.eeoc.gov/laws/types/harassment.cfm)
It is not uncommon for an employee to be subjected to harassment and be unaware that it is happening. Unwelcome conduct is a broad term that encompasses many different actions that are unwelcome. Whether it be offensive and unwelcome jokes, racial slurs, threats, offensive objects or pictures, insults or even sabotage of an employee’s work performance.
Am I Being Too Sensitive?
“Petty slights, annoyances, and isolated incidents (unless extremely serious) will not rise to the level of illegality. To be unlawful, the conduct must create a work environment that would be intimidating, hostile, or offensive to reasonable people.” (EEOC)
Accordingly, slight annoyances caused by a co-worker or supervisor are not considered illegal. Generally, harassment is present when it is repetitive and pervasive behavior that causes an employee to feel uncomfortable, intimidated or offended. This is a subjective standard. What causes one to feel uncomfortable or offended may not cause another to have those same feelings. If an employee feels that they are having to deal with offensive behavior in the workplace in order to keep their job then they may be a victim of harassment.
How Does The Law Protect You?
There are several federal and state laws that protect an employee from discrimination and harassment in the work place. Those laws include, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 and the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990.
Generally, an employer can be held liable when any of their employees harass another. Under the doctrine of vicarious liability, an employer can be held liable for the acts of any of its employees. Whether an employee is being harassed by their co-worker or supervisor, an employer has a duty to their employees to ensure a safe working environment. Furthermore, even if the harasser is a customer or a client of the business, the employer may be held liable if they were aware of the harassment and failed to take action to prevent it from continuing.
It is common for employees to be fearful of complaining or participating in an investigation because they are in fear of being retaliated against. Thankfully, the law also protects any employee who has a role in in discrimination charges in the workplace. Whether the employee makes the complaint, testifies in court or participates in the investigation in any way, the law protects them from being retaliated against.
How Should You Handle Being Harassed In The Workplace?
File an Internal Complaint
It is important to put your employer on notice if you are being subjected to harassment in the workplace. An employer cannot take any remedial action if they are not aware of the circumstances in the workplace. It is also important to make sure any and all complaints are in writing. If the situation arises to the point where you need to take legal action it is important to have documentation that your employer was aware of the issues.
Equal Employment Opportunity Commission Administrative Charge
The EEOC is a U.S. Government agency that is responsible for making sure federal anti-discrimination and anti-harassment laws are being enforced. If your employer is not taking any substantive action to remedy the harassment you are being subjected to and you are considering taking legal action, you must first file an administrative charge with the EEOC.
The EEOC will begin an independent investigation once an employee files an administrative charge through their offices. It is important to note that the EEOC may contact your employer or co-workers. Further, EEOC officers may make site visits to the workplace and conduct witness interviews. Generally, the average EEOC investigation take around 10 months. The length of an EEOC investigations depends on the complexity of the investigation, the size of the employer and the parties’ willingness to be cooperative in the investigation.
If the EEOC determines that there is reasonable cause to believe that the employee is being subjected to harassment and/or discrimination in the workplace, they will provide the complainant with a Right to Sue notice. This will permit the employee to proceed to court with proper representation. An EEOC investigation is necessary step prior to filing any sort employment harassment or discrimination lawsuit, otherwise your case will be immediately thrown out.
Find Representation and File a Lawsuit
Once you have been given a Right to Sue Notice from the EEOC, you can proceed with filing a lawsuit in the proper jurisdiction. At this point, it is recommended that you find an attorney who is experienced with labor law to assist you.
If an employee feels that they are being subjected to any form of harassment or discrimination on the basis of their race, gender, color, religion, sex(including pregnancy), ethnicity, age or disability in the workplace then they should consult with an attorney who is experienced in labor law immediately. The laws governing harassment and discrimination are complex. There are strict regulations governing the process for filing a lawsuit. Furthermore, there are strict time restrictions, known as statute of limitations, as to when a lawsuit can be filed. The experienced attorneys at Shegerian Conniff are ready to hold your employer accountable, fight for your legal rights, and seek justice. Click here to contact us today or call us at 310-322-7500 for a free consultation.