Nobody likes a bully. Unfortunately bullies don’t go away when you grow up. Instead, they can resurface in the workplace, often rising to positions of power. If you find yourself the victim of workplace harassment, you may be tempted to quit and find a new job. However, it’s important to remember that some types of workplace harassment may be illegal, and you have rights.
What is illegal workplace harassment?
Illegal harassment falls into two basic categories: quid pro quo and hostile work environment.
Quid pro quo means “this for that” and often involves employers asking employees to engage in behavior that is illegal and/or uncomfortable in exchange for job stability. While this is often sexual in nature, it may also involve asking an employee to stop certain religious customs or even keep quiet about illegal activities.
Hostile work environment covers a broader range of activities and can include:
- Using offensive language
- Discussing sexual activities
- Making inappropriate comments regarding race, gender or sexual orientation
An occasional slip of the tongue usually does not constitute illegal harassment. Instead, the offensive language or behavior needs to be consistent and directed toward the employee.
When determining whether behavior rises to the level of illegal harassment many items will be considered, such as the frequency and severity of the incidents, whether they are physically threatening or humiliating, whether they interfere with work performance, and whether the harasser is in a position of power.
It is important to know that not all workplace harassment is illegal. A supervisor may be unfriendly, or even nasty, without violating the law if they are that way to everyone without regard to sex, race, etc. Having a supervisor “who just doesn’t like me” usually will not result in a valid claim.
Don’t quit. Fight back.
In some cases, harassing language or actions can be fueled by a lapse in judgment or ignorance. Stopping the harassment may only require educating the person about their offensive behavior and requesting they stop. However, if that does not discontinue the harassment, makes it worse, or results in poor work treatment or termination, it may be time to take legal action.
One thing you should not do is quit your job unless it is completely unbearable even after trying to make it stop. Quitting can jeopardize your legal rights. Supervisors may use harassing or intimidating behavior in an attempt to force employees to quit. This is called “constructive termination” and while illegal is often very difficult to prove.
Unless you first notify your employer about the harassing behavior in a provable manner, such as by email or certified mail, and give your employer a reasonable opportunity to stop the offending behavior, you may not have a case for constructive termination. Quitting your job can also be used against you during settlement negotiations and litigation. Your employer will argue that you didn’t need or want the job and use that as a basis to offer less compensation. Also, juries are less sympathetic to people who quit-it may show that they didn’t really need the job that much.
Instead of quitting, do the following:
- Print out and save offensive emails or texts.
- Keep a journal of anything that is said or done that is offending. Do this in your own notebook or non-company issued phone or other device – not something that can be accessed by others in the company.
- Let your supervisor, manager, or the company’s HR department know what is going on, and monitor what steps they take to correct the problem.
If the problem is not quickly resolved within the company, you may need an employment lawyer to get involved. Gather your evidence and show it to an attorney. A qualified lawyer will help you decide whether pursuing legal action, including possible compensation is right for you.
Don’t let the bully win
No one should be made to feel uncomfortable at work. It may be hard, but in the long run it is better to stand your ground and fight back in order to make things better not only for yourself, but for your coworkers as well.
But always behave yourself. Always act professional even if you are at wits end.