Many employees have the mistaken belief that, if they are being harassed by their employer, a supervisor, or a co-worker or they are in a "hostile work environment" that they automatically have a claim against the employer. This is simply not the case. While general harassment and bullying are legal in all states, some states have pending legislation on workplace bullying. Since 2003, many states have introduced workplace bullying laws, none of which have passed.
The only types of harassment or hostile environment that are illegal are harassment due to race, age, sex, religion, national origin, color, disability, pregnancy, genetic information, having objected to illegal activity, having taken Family and Medical Leave, making a worker’s compensation claim, or having engaged in activity that is otherwise protected by a statute (in some states, other categories might be taking domestic violence leave, having a firearm in your vehicle, marital status, because of testimony under subpoena). If your boss is just a jerk or abusive, that is not illegal. And many small employers are not covered by these laws, so you may not be protected at all.
The other thing that I hear way too much of is, “I was harassed, so I quit and then I told them why." This is a frequent mistake. The United States Supreme Court says that, where an employer has a published sexual harassment/discriminatory harassment policy, the employee must report it under that policy and give the employer the opportunity to fix the situation. If you did not avail yourself of the employer’s policy before quitting, you are giving up your right to sue for a violation.
Appropriate remedies may be to discipline or warn the harasser, to move the harasser, under some circumstances to move the victim, to do training, or in extreme cases, to terminate the harasser. But they don’t have to take any action at all. They only have a duty to maintain a safe workplace. You might still have to work with the harasser.
What to put in the report
General harassment, hostile environment, bullying, and other disruptive behavior that is not addressed to an employee for a protected status or activity is not illegal. So before you write the long letter airing all your grievances against your boss, you may want to have an attorney look at it, or just make sure you are addressing your protected status. If you do complain, put it in writing and call it, “FORMAL COMPLAINT OF SEXUAL HARASSMENT," or “FORMAL COMPLAINT OF RELIGIOUS HARASSMENT" or whatever category you fit into. Set forth the harassment due to your protected status, and be businesslike. This is not the time to air all your complaints about the business or your boss, only to air the specific complaint about the illegal behavior. If you are harassed or are in a hostile work environment, make sure you understand your rights and responsibilities. Report it to the employer and give them a chance to address the situation. If they allow the harassment to continue, or if they retaliate, contact an attorney to discuss your legal options.
- Go back to work. Many employees simply refuse to go back to work, even where the employer has warned or disciplined the harasser. Sometimes, the fear is justified. But it is the employer’s duty to create a safe workplace. If you return and are retaliated against or continue to be harassed, report it again. If the employer allows retaliation or continued harassment, that is the time to get an attorney involved.
- Report it. Employers will usually take accusations of this type of conduct seriously. Once they are on notice, they will be held liable if they allow it to continue, and they know it. And most employers know that this behavior is disruptive, has nothing to do with making money, and can adversely affect morale. Even if the employer takes no action, by reporting their inaction to EEOC or your state agency, you have put these agencies on notice that this behavior is occurring. The employer will have no excuse when the harasser does it to the next employee. And in some cases, you may have a remedy.
- Write a formal complaint. While a long letter stating that your supervisor is incompetent or a jerk can and should get you fired, the formal complaint addressing illegal behavior should get a serious response.
- Harassment must be legally defined. While bullying isn’t illegal, harassment due to race, age, sex, national origin, disability, color, and religion are illegal. If the bully is targeting certain age, sex, ethnic or other groups, they’ve probably crossed over into illegal harassment.
- You may not be protected from bullies. Bullies are a huge drain on corporate time and assets. Employers should adopt zero tolerance policies regarding bullies. But even if they do, reporting bullies won’t protect you from retaliation unless your state legislature or Congress wises up and passes an anti-bullying law.