Understanding unlawful harassment in the workplace

Understanding what constitutes unlawful harassment may help people protect their rights and put a stop to this offensive behavior in the workplace.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission reports that in the fiscal year 2015, nearly one-third of the approximately 90,000 complaints that were filed with the commission involved workplace harassment. While it is common, harassment that is sexual in nature is not the only type of unwelcome conduct that is not permitted in workplaces. Therefore, in order to help protect themselves, it may be helpful for people in Texas and elsewhere to understand what constitutes this form of employment discrimination and what they should do if it occurs.

What is illegal workplace harassment?

Unlawful workplace harassment occurs when employees suffer severe and pervasive unwanted conduct based on a protected trait, such as age, sex or race. This type of offensive conduct may include name-calling or epithets, offensive jokes, slurs, threats or physical assaults, offensive pictures or objects, or interference with workers' abilities to perform their jobs. Such behavior may also be considered harassing if workers are forced to endure it in order to maintain their employment. While they can be upsetting, annoyances, petty slights and isolated incidents do not commonly qualify as illegal harassment.

Victims of harassment in the workplace do not only have to be those who are harassed. Rather, anyone who is affected by the inappropriate behavior may claim workplace harassment. Employees' direct supervisors, supervisors in other areas, co-workers and agents of employers, as well as non-employees, may perpetrate such conduct.

When are employers liable for harassment?

Even if they are not directly involved, employers may be held accountable for harassment that occurs in the workplace under certain circumstances. Employers have a responsibility to take reasonable actions to prevent workplace harassment and, should it occur, they are required to take prompt corrective action. When supervisors are involved in the alleged harassment, employers may be held liable unless they are able to show that they took these reasonable preventative and corrective actions and that the employees involved neglected to follow take advantage of the appropriate policies. Employers may be held automatically responsible when a supervisor's unlawful conduct leads to a negative employment action such as a loss of wages, a failure to promote or termination.

What can employees do about harassment in the workplace?

Should harassment occur in the workplace, it is important for employees to take swift action to stop the conduct. The EEOC advises first trying to handle such issues at the lowest level; speaking directly to the person committing the harassment and informing him or her that the behavior is offensive. If the harassing conduct does not stop there, it is suggested that people follow their employers' reporting procedures or lodge a formal complaint with the EEOC.

Working with a lawyer

When harassment occurs in Texas workplaces, it can turn jobs that workers love into ones that they dread. Taking action to stop unwanted conduct may help people protect themselves, as well as their livelihoods. Therefore, those who have experienced, or who are currently experiencing, offensive behavior in the workplace may benefit from consulting with an attorney. A lawyer may help them understand their legal options, as well as guide them through the process of reporting and putting a stop to the harassment.