Harassment at work can take many forms, from overly demanding bosses to careless co-workers, from unfair work policies to unwanted sexual advances. Federal laws prohibit discrimination on the basis of race, gender, age, disability, religion or national origin. The same laws also prohibit harassment based on these same factors. Co-workers who belittle you because of a disability or send sexually suggestive emails are also violating the law.
Some states have their own laws and most employers have company rules intended to prevent discrimination and harassment in the workplace. Unfortunately, even with all of these potential safeguards in place, this kind of behavior still happens on a fairly regular basis. There is just no way to stop some people from acting out and that means that they will leave unwitting victims in their wake.
If you find yourself facing this kind of harassment at work, there are several steps you can take. First and foremost, you should speak to an attorney. Harassment and discrimination can often be grounds for a lawsuit and you’ll need legal advice if you want to take things that far… but you shouldn’t wait that long. If you are being subjected to harassment, the sooner you can get the advice of a lawyer the better off you’ll be.
Another step you can take to help combat harassment in the workplace is to carefully document each incident. Make thorough notes about when and where the harassment happens. If there is any written proof, such as suggestive emails or pornographic pictures, make copies so that you have physical evidence. Remember, though, that you shouldn’t take anything that belongs to the company as that could be used against you if you do eventually file suit.
Armed with a timeline of events and as much proof as you can assemble, consult your company’s policies and follow the necessary procedure for reporting harassment at work. Make sure that you do everything by the letter so that your employer can’t find a loophole to avoid the situation. You can also directly contact your HR department if your immediate supervisor is involved in the harassment or has not been forthcoming in addressing it.
Be aware, however, that the HR department is not your friend. They are not there to protect you. They are there to protect the company from you. Many targets of harassment in the workplace who report it are targeted for termination and the abuse can escalate—sometimes dramatically.
Remember also that retaliation for filing complaints about harassment in the workplace is not legal, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen. If you do face retaliation for bringing about a complaint, then you should have the right to challenge this behavior legally. Having a lawyer on your side will be a big help in this case, as your lawyer will be able to advise you about how to proceed in terms of taking your employer to court.
Management will have lawyers advising them. They may attempt to manufacture justification, or at least the appearance of justification, for your termination. They will trump up excuses to malign your work, provide poor performance reviews, and subject you to disciplinary actions and letters. This is done to create a paper trail and the illusion that a legal, justifiable, and fair due process has been observed when nothing could be further from the truth.
Unfortunately, charges of harassment at work can be difficult to prove, which is why keeping a clear record and making sure you have legal backup are so important.
Another important thing to remember is that quitting, while it may seem like your only recourse in terms of stopping the harassment, may actually work against you if you do file suit. It is very hard to legally prove that you were forced to quit by uncomfortable or even threatening circumstances.
If you find yourself facing harassment in the workplace, remember that you are not alone and more importantly, you are not at fault. As difficult as it may be, you need to stand your ground and refuse to let a workplace bully have control over your life. Make the system work for you by following the rules and you’ll be able to hold your head up high knowing you’re in the right.