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Dealing with Harassment at the Workplace

By Julie Fishman
Quick Tips
  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.



I went to my manager with a couple complaints about my co workers. My complaints were: certain employees were getting 7-8 personal calls a day plus sitting in his office sometimes for 1 1 1/2 hours at a time. He said that he would call these employees in and ask them if what I was saying was true. I said if he handled it that way that it would cause a lot of hardship for me. I asked him if he could just have a meeting and without pointing fingers mention to the staff that he wasn't a stricked manager but for ALL of us to tone things down. Lets just say that one of the girls that I complained about is one of his favorates (not sexually). Well he went ahead and called these employees in and it caused me a lot of grief. Needless to say I've been off work due to stress. The last day of work for me, I had went into his office and asked him why he did what he did and saying look at the tension it has caused me? He yelled and downgraded me for 2 1/2 hours. I didn't bring my Union rep into the office because I never dreamt that things would get so out of hand. I've put in a grievance but I feel that the Union is siding with the manager. It's not bad enough that I've had to put up with how he treated me but now I have to put up with the Union. What kind of dissipline will he get for behaving like he did with me? Would you call what he did (harassment)? I know people have said to me that I should have walked out on him but I thought since he was my Boss that I had to stay there. I've been with the company for 20 years, I've never been reprimanded or written up for anything. At the beginning the Union had told me that there was nothing in my file and that my manager had no right bringing things up that I had never been reprimanded for. Now it's a different story, the Union is saying that I had no business ratting on my co worker and that I should not have gone into his office without representation. I thought that a Union is suppose to be there for the employees and not management. I am seriously thinking of quitting because I no longer have respect for the company or the Union. Should I ask for a severance package, since I've been there 20 years. Would you say that harassment on the job is just as bad as breach of confidentiality? The company is saying that while I was off that I breached confidentiality, but they haven't told me how, yet. I did ask a friend of mine who is also a member if it was possible that her mother had made a complaint about another co worker. My friend and I did not discuss anybody's bank accounts or anything like that. I'm due to go back to work on May 17th and I expect them(company) to fire me over this so called breach of confidentiality. If they fire me over this, then I will ask them, why he isn't fired because he did bad mouth (an employee who is also a member) to another member. Please let me know if you think how he treated me in his office would be considered harassment. I also would like to know, if certain employees don't talk to me because they know that I made a complaint about them to the manager if that's considered harassment as well. The Union says it's not called harassment. The Union says that there is nothing in our contract that says anybody has to talk to anyone. In our contract it says that "all employees are to treat other employees with respect and to discourage harassment. I'm thinking of leaving the company because I cannot work with people that are disrespectfull with one another. I have a hard time when the Union says no one should RAT on there sister. If these girls were really my SO CALLED SISTERS they would be doing their job like the rest of us and I wouldn't have had to go to management with these complaints.

I was harassed at work for 2+ years. When I seek medical attention from a psychiatrist for major depression, he told me to 'learn to accept there is injustice in this world' without condemning the harassment. Is acceptance of harassment and keeping silence an acceptable 'coping method'?

Please help me to understand. Thanks.

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