Are you being harassed at work?
If your boss is a creep, he or she is worse than a poor excuse for a human being. He or she may be breaking the law – and exposing your employer to serious financial liability. (We’re talking about settlements worth millions of dollars1, depending on the extent of the creepiness, and what steps, if any, your employer has taken to prevent such behavior.)
Sadly, there are plenty of creeps out there – but luckily, there are also many brave women and men who have taken action to stop them. Which means there’s a body of law which defines “workplace harassment” – and spells out your options and remedies if it’s happening to you.
As described at StrategicHR.com, a website for human resource managers, harassment may be:
Verbal: Sexual innuendoes or other suggestive comments; racial or ethnic slurs; jokes or teasing about sex, age, religion, disability or gender-specific traits; repeated requests for dates, sexual advances or propositions; comments about a person’s body or dress, excessive flattery or questioning of a personal nature; abusive language or insults; or threats.
Visual: Leering or staring in a sexual manner; whistling or hooting; suggestive or insulting looks; vulgar sounds or gestures; offensive or hateful pictures, posters, calendars, cartoons or obscene email; excessive attention in the form of love letters or gifts; offensive or derogatory written material.
Physical: Inappropriate touching of the body (e.g., brushing, patting, hugging, pinching or shoulder rubs); kissing or inappropriate display of body parts; coerced acts of a sexual nature; physically blocking another individual’s movement; assault; exclusionary or demeaning actions or activities based on age, ethnicity, sex or race.
In most cases, to meet the legal definition of harassment, the behavior must be persistent: a one-time stupid comment or action probably isn’t illegal. To prove that the behavior is objectionable, you should object – the first time it happens, and any time afterwards.
What to do if you are being harassed:
- Talk to the offender: Believe it or not, some creeps don’t know just how creepy they are. If possible, discuss the issue in a non-confrontational manner, explain why the behavior is unacceptable, and insist that it not be repeated.
- Take notes: Write down what is happening to you, when and where. Note names and contact information of any potential witnesses.
Are there other victims? Confide in trusted co-workers. Is this same boss abusing anyone else? Are other bosses in your workplace also engaged in harassment? If so, your employer has a serious problem – and like other workplace problems, it’s best solved by workers acting together, rather than individually.
Psychologist Bob Sutton, an expert on workplace bullying, points out: "It is far more difficult for management – or a judge – to dismiss a complaint from a group of victims than a single victim"
- Go over your boss’s head: If your boss won’t stop behaving badly, go over that person’s head. If you’re not comfortable talking to his or her direct supervisor, go to the human resource department or an executive in your company or organization. It’s important to let them know about the problem – and to document that you’ve tried to solve it.
- If you’re a union member, file a grievance: Union contracts typically prohibit discrimination and harassment. A union grievance can address this contract violation, offering protection to you and your co-workers.
- Contact an attorney, the U.S. Equal Opportunity Employment Commission (EEOC) or your state equal opportunity office: Once you’ve documented the harassment that is taking place, and reported it in your workplace, you can contact a private attorney or government agency to find out if you have a potential legal case and a possible remedy.
Article: “Workplace Harassment: Frequently Asked Questions,” at StrategicHr.com
Article: “Top 25 Workplace Harassment, Bias Settlements,” at Insurance Journal.com
Article: “Latest Tips for Surviving Workplace Assholes,” at BobSutton/typepad.com
Government agency: U.S. Equal Opportunity Employment Commission, at http://eeoc.gov/employees/index.cfm
Harassment is when your boss (or a co-worker) says or does something to you because of your:
- Pregnancy status
- National origin
- Age (if you are 40 or older)
- Genetic information.
1In one recent, especially egregious case, nurse Ani Chopourian was awarded $163 million after being repeatedly harassed, then fired from Mercy General Hospital in California. The hospital is appealing the decision.