Do you feel that you might be the victim of workplace harassment? Federal law offers protections from unlawful harassment, which includes incidents that interfere with your success at work or create a hostile work environment. State laws may also provide protection from harassment at work.
However, not every unpleasant behavior or incident qualifies as harassment under the law. It’s important to know what does and doesn’t meet the standard. Under federal law, you’ll likely need to file a charge with The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) before suing in court, so you’ll want to be sure that the behavior counts as harassment under the legal definition.
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 could 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 conduct that is based on race, color, religion, sex (including pregnancy), national origin, age (40 or older), disability or genetic information.” This behavior becomes illegal at the point where:
- Enduring it is a prerequisite for employment, or
- The conduct is so severe that it creates a hostile, abusive, or intimidating work environment.
Harassing conduct may include offensive jokes or pictures, name-calling, racial slurs, threats, intimidation, and more. The harasser can be your boss, but can also be a coworker or an employee in another department. It can even be 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 victim also needn’t suffer “economic injury”; even if you keep your job and paycheck, you can still be a victim of harassment.
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 Complaint
There are key steps you should take in order to file a complaint. These include:
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 charge.
File the Charge as Soon as Possible
After the incident occurs, you have 180 days to file the charge with the EEOC. This window is extended to 300 days if a state or local law prohibits harassment on the same basis.
Check with your state department of labor for information on state protections and how to file a charge, if applicable.
In cases that involve a violation of the Equal Pay Act, complainants need not file a charge with the EEOC, but can instead go directly to court. However, if you choose to file with the EEOC, you have two to three years to do so, depending on whether the case was one of “willful discrimination.”
Start With the EEOC
To file a charge of discrimination, first submit an inquiry through the EEOC’s online Public Portal. The Portal will walk you through a few questions to determine whether the EEOC is the right agency for your claim. Then, you can schedule an interview with a staff member, also through the portal, and file a charge if you feel that it’s warranted. You can also visit an EEOC office in person. The agency's website offers a tool that finds the closest office to you.
You'll need to provide your name, address, telephone number, 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.
In some cases, the EEOC asks the complainant and the employer to participate in a mediation program, which may lead to a voluntary settlement. If that doesn’t work, the EEOC may ask the employer to answer your charge in what’s called a “Respondent's Position Statement.” You can view their statement and upload your response in the portal. Note that there’s a 20-day time limit for you to respond.
As part of the investigation, the EEOC may contact witnesses, interview co-workers, and speak with your employer. The EEOC might also visit your workplace or request documents associated with the incident.
Once your file your charge, 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 complaint.
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.
Depending on the nature of the discrimination, you may also be able to file your suit more quickly. For cases involving the Age Discrimination in Employment Act, you don’t need to wait for a Notice of Right to Sue. Sixty days after you file a charge with the EEOC, you’re free to file a suit in federal court. In cases dealing with discrimination suffered under the Equal Pay Act, victims may either sue or file a charge with the EEOC, and they have two to three years to do the latter.
If you wish to file a lawsuit before the EEOC completes its investigation, you can request a Notice of Right to Sue through the portal.
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.
A Note for Federal Employees or Job Applicants
The complaint process is different for federal employees. The EEOC provides an in-depth overview of the process at their site, but the main differences are:
- To start the process, federal employees and applicants must contact an Equal Employment Opportunity counselor at the agency where they work or are applying to work. The time limit for this initial contact is 45 days.
- The counselor often provides two options: participating in EEO counseling or a mediation program.
- If the dispute can’t be settled via these options, you can file a formal complaint through the agency’s EEO Office within 15 days.
Not Every Incident Qualifies as Harassment: Per the EEOC: “Petty slights, annoyances, and isolated incidents” typically are not illegal.
In Most Cases, Before Filing a Lawsuit, You Must File a Charge With the EEOC: Note that there’s a time limit to file a charge – typically, 180 days.
Be Prepared to Explain Any Harassment or Discrimination: Provide as much detail as possible. The EEOC may follow up by requesting documents, interviewing witnesses, or speaking with your employer.
Once a Claim Is Filed, Your Employer May Not Retaliate Against You: They cannot lay you off, demote you, or fire you in response to your claim or participation.
The information contained in this article is not legal advice and is not a substitute for such advice. State and federal laws change frequently, and the information in this article may not reflect your own state’s laws or the most recent changes to the law.