Dealing with Harassment at the Workplace
- Hazy harassment – Oftentimes there’s a thin line between innocent hazing and downright illegal harassment. In most cases though, trust your gut: If something feels wrong, it probably is, so don’t be afraid to point out the problem.
- Nip it in the bud – Don’t let the harasser think their harasshole behavior is ok. Say something. Tell the aggressor that the behavior is not appreciated. Write a letter outlining the offense and keep a copy for your records. If the problem persists, file a formal complaint with HR.
- Going nuclear – If internal office procedures fail, or if the offense is outrageous, you should go directly to the police. Speak with an employee rights attorney, and if the claim is valid, you’ll be able to file suit.
- Be a handbook whore – Knowing company policy and employee rights can speed up the resolution process and ensure that you don’t look like the grad who cried wolf.
- Reach out – Gain support, witnesses, or allies by talking to co-workers, family, and friends about the harassment.
Remember the elementary school bully who gave atomic wedgies to the geometry club? Or the middle school smart aleck who renamed Becky McFadden Becky McFattend? How about the high school Romeo who spit lines like, “There are 265 bones in the human body. How’d you like one more?” Well, these a-holes are now adults, and if their adolescent antics have carried over into the working world, they could be considered instances of harassment.
Being the lowest but youngest (and therefore most attractive) members of the totem pole, recent grads are both the most likely to be the victims of harassment and the least likely to feel comfortable reporting it. Technically, harassment at work occurs when any unwelcome comments or conduct based on sex, religion, or other legally guarded characteristics interferes with an employee’s performance or creates a hostile, intimidating, or uncomfortable work environment. Employees are protected under Title VII of The Civil Rights Act of 1964, but behavior must be severe, pervasive, or result in a change in status (demotion, firing, failure to promote, etc.) to be considered harassment. So how do you gauge when innocuous hazing is actually illegal harassment?
A Thin Grey Line
Harassment can be hazier than LA on a hot summer day. It is often hard to tell when something is innocent and when it is inappropriate. Ass slap at the company softball game: probably okay. Ass slap in the boss’s office: probably not okay. Harassment comes in many varieties, the most prevalent being sexual, racial, and emotional. All three involve unwanted verbal, visual, or physical conduct of an offensive nature aimed at a person’s gender, ethnicity, or personal integrity. Examples range from innuendos to sexual invitations, epithets to assaults, and demeaning to demoting. Minor offenses, such as jokes, gestures, or emails are not legally considered harassment unless they are recurring or very severe. It may be best to simply tell the perpetrator that the action is unacceptable. If a minor offense reoccurs, it becomes a major offense and moves to the realm of harassment. Serious transgressions, such as a boss giving a “sex or sayonara” ultimatum or threats to a person’s well-being should be dealt with immediately.
Dealing with the Dilemma Internally
Workplace harassment is common but often not reported because the victim blames him or herself, is ashamed, or thinks the results will outweigh the complaint. It is important not to let a problem fester. If the objective is simply to stop a low-level offense, such as being referred to as McDreamy, simply tell the person that the behavior is not appreciated. If face-to-face confrontation is too intimidating, write a letter outlining what the disturbing conduct is, why it is bothersome, and how it can be resolved. Keep a copy in case the situation persists and a more formal complaint must be made. Use those college-note-taking skills to record date, time, place, and possible witnesses of instances. If bad behavior persists, discuss the problem with a supervisor who can then either talk directly to the workplace wanker or take a more general approach, such as holding a staff meeting to reinforce proper conduct. If the supervisor isn’t too super about resolving the problem, file a formal complaint with HR. Check the employee handbook to see if there is a procedure to follow. A harasser’s defense may be to criticize the performance of the accuser. Keep work performance records, evaluations, and any other documents or emails that can attest to a job well done.
When to Take It to the Police
In the event that internal procedures fail, file a charge with a local office of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and talk to an experienced Employee Rights Attorney. If the agency can’t resolve the complaint but deems the claim valid, they’ll issue a “right to sue” letter, which means the case can be brought to Judge Judy. Cases involving threats, assault, or rape should be taken directly to the police. Employers sometimes threaten to fire, demote, or give undesirable assignments if the employee doesn’t put up with the abuse. For this reason, the most serious cases are often ignored. No job is worth a blow job. Accepting abuse leads to repeated abuse; one-time incidents become regular occurrences. Reporting the problem may make going to work uncomfortable, but living with the mistreatment will probably a lot worse.
For more info check out this state-by-state guide to filing a harassment claim.