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How to deal with harassment at work

Steps to help end harassing behaviors

You have the right to protect yourself from harassment at work. Taking certain steps can help stop the harassment and protect your right to sue, if necessary.

Telling your harasser to stop

Not all harassment is illegal, but that doesn't mean it should be tolerated either. If someone’s behavior is bothering you, the first step is usually to tell the person to stop. Sometimes that’s all it takes to resolve the issue.

But even if telling them to stop doesn’t work, taking this step can protect you from claims by your harasser that you didn’t find the behavior unwelcome. You’ve told them exactly how you feel.

Reporting harassment to human resources

If the harassment continues, talk with HR to find out your company’s reporting procedure. Make sure you follow it exactly, and keep a copy of the complaint for your own records.

Remember, your company can’t stop behavior it doesn’t know about. And if you don’t report it, the company may use that as a defense if you end up filing a lawsuit.

You may want to talk to HR even if the harassment initially stops. If it starts up again, you’ll have a record of the previous incident. Also, even if the behavior wasn’t illegal, it may violate company policies.

Filing a harassment claim with a government agency

If your employer doesn’t or can’t stop the behavior, your next step is filing a claim with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). This step is also required before you can file a lawsuit.

In some states you also have to file a claim with the state’s fair employment agency. There are usually time limits for filing these claims.

The EEOC will contact your employer and investigate your claim. If it finds your claim has merit, it may require you and your employer undergo mediation to try to settle the issue.

The agency may also issue you a right to sue letter. You’ll then have a specific (and short) amount of time to do that.

Suing for workplace harassment

Make sure you have your right to sue letter before filing. Without it your suit will be dismissed.

You will need to prove each point for why the behavior you experienced is illegal (unwelcome, protected status, and hostile work environment).

Depending on your situation, if successful the courts may award you some of the following:

  • Damages for emotional distress
  • Reinstatement and back pay
  • Payment of lost fringe benefits
  • Payment of your legal fees
  • Punitive damages

Your company may also be ordered to provide harassment training or strengthen their complaint procedures.

Employer responsibilities for addressing harassment

Employers covered under anti-discrimination and harassment laws can be held liable for their employees’ behavior. It’s in their best interests to have internal policies and procedures that allow them to do the following:

  • Provide anti-harassment training to all managers and employees.
  • Have a simple, clear process for filing complaints.
  • Include the policies and complaint procedure in an employee handbook or other written materials.
  • Take all complaints seriously and take immediate action to resolve them.

Stopping unwanted behavior early is easier when managers know what’s expected and employees feel comfortable speaking up.

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