Illegal harassment in the workplace is no joke.
Workplace harassment involves unwelcome and offensive conduct that is based on race, color, national origin, sex (including pregnancy), religion, disability, or age (age 40 or older). Many states also have other protected classes so it is important to be familiar with your own state’s discrimination laws.
Some examples of harassment include offensive or derogatory jokes, racial or ethnic slurs, pressure for dates or sexual favors, unwelcome comments about a person’s religion or religious garments, or offensive cartoons or pictures, to name a few.
Keep in mind, however, that not all workplace harassment is illegal. Discrimination laws generally do not prohibit simple teasing, offhand comments, or isolated incidents that are not particularly serious. For workplace harassment to be illegal, the conduct must either be severe (meaning very serious) or pervasive (meaning it occurred with frequency).
One instance of harassing conduct is generally not sufficient to meet the definition of illegal harassment, unless the conduct is very serious, such as a physical assault. If you believe you are being illegally harassed at work, there are several steps you should take right away to protect yourself:
1. Tell the Harasser to STOP:
Be direct – say what you feel. If you are not comfortable with the comments or conduct being directed toward you, be sure to let the actor know – right away. Make it clear that their comments or conduct are unacceptable and that you expect it stop immediately. One caveat: You are not required to confront the harasser. However, it is a great first step if you feel comfortable doing it. Your direct admonishment to the harasser may stop him or her in their tracks without having to resort to more serious measures.
2. Write it Down:
If you are being treated in a way that you don’t think is appropriate by any person at work, write it down. Dates, times, quotes – it is ALL important. The better the documentation, the better your case. Any notes are better than none – steno notebook, computer file, or cocktail napkin – it all works. Most important item – DATE. Don’t leave it out.
3. Tell a Member of Management:
If things don’t change after you’ve told the harasser that you’re not comfortable (OR if you simply do not want to confront your coworker), tell you boss or go straight to HR.
Take a look at your employee handbook and determine how it is that you bring a complaint of harassment. Follow any procedures that are outlined and if your company does not have any sort of procedure outlined, just talk with your supervisor.
Any inaction on their part will only add fuel to your fire, should you actually be forced to bring a sexual harassment complaint through a state agency.
Another caveat: If it happens to be your supervisor that is doing the harassing, go above their head to the next person in control, or any other supervisor-level person that you feel comfortable with, including HR.
Don’t just share with coworkers – You must go to HR or some supervisor to report the problem because an employer will not be held legally responsible for conduct that they did not know about. The only way an employer can know is if you tell them – and that is generally only through HR or management.
4. Demand Action:
Don’t let your employer sit on their laurels when it comes to your complaint – demand action and a result. Be sure to ask your employer for written evidence of their investigation into your complaint, as well as a written explanation of their results and findings.
It is your right to know what your employer is doing to address your concerns and if the employer’s action is ineffective in stopping the harassment, you probably have a case to take to a lawyer or your state agency that enforces discrimination laws.
5. Don’t Wait:
Do not wait to report the problem. As soon as you feel that you are being harassed, make your move, being it confronting the harasser or making a report to management.
Waiting could subject you to further acts of harassment that may worsen in severity or frequency – who wants that? Waiting may also result in keeping certain instances of harassment or discrimination from being considered should you wait too long to file a formal complaint through a state agency or attorney.