What to Do if You Face Workplace Harassment

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Unfortunately, workplace harassment is a reality for many people. However, there are protections in place for workers so that they can take action and advocate for themselves even when there is a power imbalance.

Unfortunately, workplace harassment is a reality for many people. However, there are protections in place for workers so that they can take action and advocate for themselves even when there is a power imbalance. Simultaneously, employers have a responsibility to educate employees about what constitutes as harassment, what their rights are and how to report any problems. 

From a legal perspective, workplace harassment is defined by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) as:“unwelcome verbal or physical behavior that is based on race, color, religion, sex (including pregnancy), gender/gender identity, nationality, age (40 or older), physical or mental disability, or genetic information.”

This type of harassment is against the law, especially when it affects a worker’s employment status or creates a hostile and toxic environment. Harassment usually involves speech that is considered intimidating and may be offensive and abusive. While colleagues can be rude and even make inappropriate jokes, harassment is intentional and pervasive to the point that employees are not able to perform their job to the best of their ability. 

What to Do if You Are in a Hostile Work Environment?  

You should not have to tolerate a hostile work environment. In the short-term, it is important to try to find escapes and do your best to shield yourself from negativity. Also, keep in mind that your co-workers are probably feeling the same way and can make important allies. You should not have to simply “avoid” these behaviors, as it is your right to take formal action to protect yourself and your employment.

Your first line of defense is the Civil Rights Center. Contact them at 202-693-6500 within 45 days of any discriminatory incident and they will help you file a complaint with the EEO. The Department of Labor’s Civil Rights Center can also be a vital resource that will help you hold employers and individuals accountable. In some cases, you may want to consider filing a lawsuit in federal court

Should I Quit to Stop Harassment?  

If a toxic work environment is taking too much of a mental and emotional toll, quitting is always an option. However, it is important to remember that you will not be able to collect unemployment benefits immediately because it was a voluntary action. Eventually, you may be eligible for unemployment through a path called constructive discharge, but you will have to be able to establish that you suffered harassment or were discriminated against for filing a formal complaint against the employer. 

Minimizing Workplace Harassment  

The first step to minimizing workplace harassment is education. Employers have a responsibility to ensure that workers are aware of what constitutes discrimination and harassment and to be clear that it will not be tolerated. Diversity should be celebrated so that colleagues learn to respect differences. Finally, employers should respond swiftly and strongly to any complaints or signs of harassment. All of these actions will help to create a company culture that is clearly against harassment. 

Both employers and employees can take steps to fight workplace harassment and discrimination. As a worker, understand your rights and know the proper channels to pursue if you are experiencing a hostile work environment. As a manager or business owner, understand what constitutes harassment and take steps to establish a company culture where harassment and discrimination is simply not tolerated in any form.

What defines workplace harassment? 

While different states have broader definitions of harassment, federal law defines it as: “any conduct [that] is severe or pervasive enough that a reasonable person would consider the workplace intimidating, hostile, or abusive.”

What can you do to minimize workplace discrimination and harassment?

Employers should work to create a company culture of respect and inclusion. This starts with education and also includes taking quick action when complaints are filed or there is clear evidence of discrimination.

Who do you call for workplace harassment?

You should contact the Civil Rights Center at 202-693-6500 to file a complaint and get the support you need.

Can you sue for harassment at work?

Absolutely. Both state and federal laws are in place to protect workers and you may be able to use these as grounds for a lawsuit.

What qualifies as a hostile work environment?

A work environment can be considered hostile if people are engaging in behavior that violates civil rights or there is a pervasive problem with abusive actions that are affecting employees’ ability to work. 

What behaviors are considered criteria for a hostile work environment? 

Intimidating, offensive and abusive language and behaviors over an extended period can create a hostile work environment.

Can I quit my job because of a hostile work environment? 

Yes, but you will not be able to receive unemployment unless you can prove that you were forced to quit because of a hostile work environment. Protect yourself by filing formal complaints and creating and saving a paper trail that will help you document incidents and provide a body of proof. 

How do you handle a hostile work environment?

Try to find escapes and create ways to avoid the negativity. This can include finding allies among your co-workers who may be having similar experiences. Finally, don’t hesitate to file formal complaints and take advantage of workers’ rights.



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