Workplace harassment is a type of discrimination that violates Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) outlines harassment as a not acceptable verbal or physical behaviour that is based on race, colour, religion, sex (including pregnancy), gender/gender identity, nationality, age, physical or mental disability, or genetic information.

Harassment is termed unlawful when coping with the offensive conduct becomes a prerequisite to continued employment, or when the behaviour is severe or pervasive enough that a reasonable person would consider the workplace intimidating, hostile, or abusive.

Also, if a supervisor’s harassment results in an obvious change in the employee’s salary or status, this conduct would be considered unlawful workplace harassment. Most states in the United States have statutes that restrict discrimination or harassment on the basis of whether a person is a smoker.

A handful of states, including Wisconsin and New York, along with some private companies have laws or policies that prohibit discrimination and harassment based on arrest records or convictions.

You need to understand what is and what is not termed workplace harassment. Harassing conduct may include offensive jokes, slurs, name-calling, physical assaults or threats, intimidation, ridicule, insults, offensive pictures, and more.

Have it in mind that workplace harassment is not just sexual harassment and doesn’t preclude harassment between two people of the same gender. The harasser can be your boss, a supervisor in another department, a co-worker, or even a non-employee. Also note that the victim doesn’t have to be the person being harassed; it can be an individual disturbed by the harassing behaviour.

To file a complaint harassment claim, you have to show that your employer tried to prevent and correct the harassing conduct and that the employee unreasonably rejected the employer’s corrective efforts.

Harassment can also take occur during a job interview. For instance, during an interview, employers should not ask about your race, religion, marital status, age, disabilities, ethnic background, country of origin, or sexual preferences.

These are termed discriminatory questions because they have no connection whatsoever to your abilities, skills and qualifications to do the job. In the United States, everything concerning workplace harassment are enforced by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

How to File a Workplace Harassment Complaint

You need to understand that anytime a conduct becomes a continual condition of employment and is pervasive enough to create a hostile work environment, such harassment violates 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. It simply means that you can take action against threats, slurs and assaults in this vein by filing a harassment charge.

EEOC and FEPAs

Know that to file a charge of harassment with the EEOC, you need to file the charge before filing a job discrimination charge against your employer. The time limit varies but generally is 180 calendar days. Also note that you can file with a state or local Fair Employment Practices Agency, in which case you’ll be automatically dual-filed with the EEOC, so you do not need to file with both.

Even though the EEOC does not accept charges over the phone or online, you are allowed to begin the process by filling out an intake questionnaire online or speaking with an EEOC representative by calling 1-800-669-4000.

Filing a Complaint in Person

To file a complaint in person you’ll need to go to an EEOC field office or post office to file the actual complaint. EEOC expects that you call the field office nearest to you and ask about its specific walk-in procedure; It’s advisable that you bring any relevant paper to the meeting, in support of your harassment charge.

This paper might be termination notices, performance reviews and the names and contact information of the person who may have further details about specific incidents. You can bring an attorney with you, although you are not required to hire one.

National Labour Relations Board

You can also file a harassment claim through the National Labour Relations Board. Anytime you experience threats or unlawful disciplinary actions due to unionizing, and believe your employee rights have been violated under Section 8 of the National Labour Relations Act, download a charge form, i.e. “Charge Against Employer” and contact the nearest NLRB regional office to start the process.

Note that board agents will investigate the charge and a regional director will make a decision on its merits, usually within 7 to 12 weeks. Your charge can be settled, withdrawn or dismissed.

Filing by Mail

You can also decide to file your harassment claim by mail by submitting a signed letter containing your name and contact information, with that of your employer and/or the persons you wish to file the charge against.

You also have to include details of the harassment incident, including when it occurred and why you think it occurred. The EEOC may follow up and ask for further clarification and confirmation of your claim.

Moving a Harassment Claim to Court

Note that if the EEOC investigates the claim and find no violation of the law, it will give you a Notice of Right to Sue. It gives you the chance to file a suit in a court of law. But if the EEOC does find fault and tries to reach a settlement with your employer but cannot, its legal team or the Department of Justice will decide whether or not to file a suit against your employer.

Important details to keep in mind when planning to file a harassment complaint

First and foremost, you need to understand the importance of keeping a written record of the time and date of the incident(s), including the individuals involved, the place the harassment happened and other crucial details.

These records will help your supervisor or anyone in charge conduct an investigation of the incident, and will also be useful when it comes time to actually file your claim. Note that after the incident occurs, you have 180 days to file the claim with the EEOC. (This window is extended to 300 days if a state or local law prohibits harassment on the same basis). In this claim, you will have to provide your name, address, telephone and detailed information about your workplace and your employer.

You should also be ready to talk about the harassment you faced and any discrimination that may have resulted. Provide as much detailed information as possible. The EEOC will conduct an investigation into the incident after hearing your claim. This may include contacting witnesses, interviewing co-workers and speaking with your employer. The EEOC might also visit your workplace or request documents associated with the incident.

It’s very important to state that once you file your claim, your employer is legally prohibited from punishing you for filing your claim — they cannot fire you, lay you off or demote you for cooperating with an EEOC investigation or filing a claim.

When facing harassment or discrimination at work, there are some steps you should take to protect your rights. Have it in mind that this action might help you put a stop to the mistreatment and improve your work situation. Even if they don’t, however, taking these steps will help you prove your case and preserve your right to sue.

Speak to the Harasser

Although it might be very hard but it’s advisable that you confront the person who is maltreating you. Note that this is the best way to get the behaviour to stop. And, legally speaking, putting the wrongdoer on notice will help you prove some important facts if you later file a lawsuit.

You need to note that complaining of harassment proves that the behaviour was unwelcome: in other words, that you did not like it or participate in it willingly. Note that this comes up often in sexual harassment cases, in which the offender claims that the victim laughed at his off-colour jokes or found his lewd comments flattering.

This is why the best way to prove you don’t like or accept the conduct is to show that you told the harasser you were offended by the behaviour. If the situation doesn’t improve, consider putting your concerns in writing. Keep a copy for yourself.

File a Complaint within Your Company

If after confronting the harasser the conduct doesn’t stop– or if you decided to skip the conversation altogether (for example, because you feared for your safety) — the next step is to make an internal complaint. You’re advised to first check the employee handbook or ask your HR department how to file a harassment or discrimination complaint. You can then follow those instructions to the letter.

Note that by complaining to your company, you are giving the company a chance to resolve the problem internally. But you are also preserving your legal rights. For instance, your ability to hold the company liable (rather than just the individual person who harassed you) in a harassment claim rests on whether the company knew about, and had the chance to solve and rectify the issue.

If you are being harassed by a manager and the end result is a tangible job action against you (such as being fired, demoted, or denied a raise), the company will be liable. But, if you are being harassed by a co-worker, or by a manager who doesn’t take this type of work-related action against you, the company can claim that it did not know about the harassment.

This is why making an internal complaint changes that situation: The complaint puts the company on notice of the problem and makes them liable for fixing it. Also note that making an internal complaint also puts the company on notice of the problem. If the company then fails to take effective action to improve the situation, you might have a stronger argument for punitive damages: damages intended to punish an employer for egregious behaviour.

File an Administrative Charge

It’s very important to state that before you can bring a discrimination or harassment lawsuit under federal law, you need to file an administrative charge with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) or a similar state agency. This is a legal requirement.

Note that if you attempt to file a lawsuit without first having filed a charge (called “exhausting” your administrative remedies, legally speaking), your lawsuit will be thrown out. Some states in the United States also ask employees to file an administrative complaint with the state’s fair employment practices agency before filing a discrimination or harassment lawsuit based on state law.

Have it in mind that immediately you file a charge, the EEOC or similar agency will notify your employer. The agency can also dismiss your charge, investigate, ask that you and your employer try to settle or mediate the dispute, or take other actions. Unless, the agency decides to file a lawsuit on your behalf (an extraordinarily rare occurrence), it will eventually finish processing your claim and issue you a right to sue letter. Once you receive the letter, you may file a lawsuit.

Conclusion

Indeed no workplace is all rosy, and many work days might be stressful or trying on your nerves, still no workplace should be hostile or unsafe for employees. It is for this reason that companies should make it a top priority to eradicate hostile or harmful behaviour.

But even with all the set ups and policies, harmful behaviours may still slip under the radar. In these cases, it is up to the employee to inform their employer about the harassment. As designated by the EEOC, small slights or annoyances do not count as harassment.

Single isolated incidents, although they can be troubling, will not be considered illegal unless they are shown to be extremely severe. Agreeably, abusers and harassers often depend on power structures to intimidate their victims, and many perpetrators will have patterns or repeat behaviours with multiple victims. But being brave enough to come forward could help other victims feel safe enough to do so as well.

Ajaero Tony Martins