The work environment is supposed to be a hostile-free environment under federal and state anti-discrimination laws. The onus is on your employer to keep it that way. Employers have specific responsibilities under anti-discrimination laws to keep your workplace free of harassment because of discrimination. A workplace bully who is annoying or rude is one thing, but if he harasses you because of your race, color, sex, religion or any other protected class under these laws, you need to bring it to the attention of your employer.
Title VII Civil Rights Act
Enacted in 1964, the Civil Rights Act made discrimination based on sex, religion, race, color, national origin or disability illegal. Additional laws and amendments added age, gender identity and genetic information to these protected classes over the years. Three areas are affected by these laws: hiring, firing and promotion practices; co-worker or supervisor discriminatory harassment; and retaliation for filing a complaint of harassment because of discrimination.
Keep a record of the dates, times and any witnesses to the harassment to back your position when you talk to the human resources department or your supervisor. Review your employee handbook to find out the exact steps for filing a complaint of harassment. Employers that want to adhere to federal and state laws list the procedures for filing a complaint of harassment in the handbook. Start with your supervisor -- unless he is the culprit -- to file the complaint. If you cannot talk to your immediate supervisor, get in touch with the human resources department instead.
Filing Charges with the EEOC
If the harassment was discriminatory in nature and your employer has failed to act upon your complaint, file a charge of discrimination based upon your co-worker's harassment with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission or your state's fair labor practices board. In states that have anti-discrimination laws on the books, when you file a complaint with it, the complaint is also filed with the EEOC.
EEOC Charge Handling Process
The EEOC will send a copy of the charge you have made to your employer. The first step is the mediation process to resolve the problems. If mediation doesn't resolve the situation or you and your employer don't choose mediation, the EEOC will begin an investigation that requires your employer's cooperation that could take up to six months. If the EEOC finds a violation of law, it may try to reach a settlement with your employer; if not, the EEOC may pursue a case against your employer in a court of law. The EEOC may choose not to sue, and will give you notice of your right to sue, which will allow you to pursue the case in court.
Some states have paved a way for employees to bring harassment suits against their co-workers in a court of law. In California, for example, under government code section 12940(j)(3), an employee "is personally liable for any harassment prohibited by this section." The harassment has to fit under the anti-discrimination federal and state laws and meet the court's criteria for lawsuit. As these are serious charges to bring against a co-worker, you will need to be prepared to handle the legal and financial expenses. Lawsuits often take years before they are heard in court.
Other Legal Remedies
Unless a workplace bully physically attacks you, there is no way to file charges against him or your employer if you are not in a protected class discriminated against at work through the EEOC. But a workplace bullying law is gaining ground in Massachusetts. The Massachusetts Healthy Workplace bill's goal is to provide legal remedies for those who are not in a protected class but need legal protection against workplace bullying. One option against a bully is to obtain a legal restraining order that should keep the bully at bay. You can also pursue charges against your employer or the bully in a civil court of law, but you need money, time, the advice of a good attorney and a case that will stand up in court.
- U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission: Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964
- University of Wisconsin: UWP Policy & Procedures Regarding Discrimination & Harassment
- U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission: Filing A Charge of Discrimination
- U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission: How to File a Charge of Discrimination
- U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission: The Charge Handling Process
- Associated Industries of Massachusetts: Court Opens Door for Employees to Sue Co-Workers over Harassment
- California Legislative Info: Government Code Section 12940-12951 12940(h)(3)
- Boston Business Journal: Workplace Bullying Law Gaining Traction
- Ryan McVay/Photodisc/Getty Images