How to File a Harassment Claim

These are the legal steps for workplace harassment

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Unlawful harassment includes incidents that interfere with your success at work or create a hostile work environment. If you think you're a victim of workplace harassment, consider filing a claim with The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).

However, it’s important to know what does and doesn’t count as harassment before filing a claim. The EEOC states that “Petty slights, annoyances, and isolated incidents (unless extremely serious) will not rise to the level of illegality. To be unlawful, the conduct must create a work environment that would be intimidating, hostile, or offensive to reasonable people.”

A complaint that doesn't legally count as workplace harassment will lead to unnecessary stress, legal costs and damaged relationships, so do your research before you file.

Definition of Workplace Harassment

The EEOC defines harassment as unwelcome behavior that is based on race, color, religion, sex (including pregnancy), nationality, age (40 or older), disability or genetic information. Harassment becomes unlawful when:

1. Enduring the offensive conduct becomes a prerequisite to continued employment, or

2. The conduct is severe or pervasive enough that a reasonable person would consider the workplace intimidating, hostile or abusive.

Harassing conduct may include offensive jokes, slurs, name-calling, physical assaults or threats, intimidation, ridicule, insults, offensive pictures and more. The harasser can be your boss, a supervisor in another department, a co-worker or even a non-employee. (For example, if you have a client who harasses you, and your boss refuses to change your assignment or otherwise protect you from continued abuse, that might constitute a hostile work environment.)

Interestingly, the victim doesn't necessarily have to be the person being harassed; it can be anyone affected by the harassing behavior.

The EEOC encourages employees to “inform the harasser directly that the conduct is unwelcome” and to ask them to stop. It also recommends informing management to prevent escalation.

Employers are liable for harassment perpetrated by a supervisor, staff member or contractor if they knew (or should have known) about the behavior and failed to take action to stop it.  

Filing a Harassment Claim

Keep Detailed Records

Keep a written record of the time and date of the incident(s), including the individuals involved, the place the harassment occurred and other pertinent details. Keeping accurate, detailed records will help your supervisor conduct an investigation of the incident, and will also be useful when it comes time to actually filing your claim.

File the Claim as Soon as Possible

After the incident occurs, you have 180 days to file the claim with the EEOC. (This window is extended to 300 days if a state or local law prohibits harassment on the same basis.)

You can file the claim by mail, in person, or by calling 800-669-4000. If you live within 100 miles of five EEOC offices (Charlotte, Chicago, New Orleans, Phoenix, and Seattle), you can also participate in a pilot program and file your complaint online. Learn more about the EEOC’s Online Inquiry and Appointment System, here.

You'll need to provide your name, address, telephone and detailed information about your workplace and your employer. Also, be prepared to talk about the harassment you faced and any discrimination that may have resulted. Provide as much detailed information as possible.

After the EEOC receives your claim, they will conduct an investigation into the incident. This may include contacting witnesses, interviewing co-workers and speaking with your employer. The EEOC might also visit your workplace or request documents associated with the incident.

Once your file your claim, be aware that your employer is legally prohibited from punishing you for filing your claim -- they cannot fire you, lay you off or demote you for cooperating with an EEOC investigation or filing a claim.

When to Contact a Lawyer

If the EEOC is unable to determine that a law was violated, you will be given the right to sue and will have 90 days to file a lawsuit. At this point, it's advisable to contact a lawyer.

In addition, if you feel like your case isn't being handled properly or that your employer is discriminating against you because you filed the complaint, it's wise to contact an attorney for further advice. While filing a harassment claim can be stressful for all parties involved, the EEOC does try to ensure that claims are settled fairly.

More About Workplace Harassment: Examples of Sexual and Non-Sexual Harassment