What Legal Actions to Take on Verbal Harassment in the Workplace?

Get your "ducks in a row" before you take legal action on harassment.
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A co-worker, supervisor or outside entity connected with your employer who continually harasses you might be violating your right to a hostile-free work environment under federal laws. It depends on the "severity and pervasiveness" of the harassment and whether it is a form of discrimination -- as defined under the law -- against you or another at work. Belittling or demeaning comments made by anyone associated with work based on a person's age, sex, disability, race, color, country of origin or religion are against the law.

Definition of Harassment

    You can't file a charge of verbal harassment just because a person annoys you or you experienced an isolated incident. The harassment, as defined by federal law, must be a violation of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Harassment represents unwelcome verbal comments about your race, color, sex, national origin, religion, age or disability that create a work environment that any "reasonable" person would consider abusive, hostile or intimidating.

First Steps

    Before you go to your state's labor fair employment board or the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission with your complaint of harassment, read the procedure for filing such a complaint from the company's employee handbook. Keep a diary of the dates and times of harassment and include notes about any potential witnesses. Take your written account with you when you go to speak to your immediate supervisor. If your supervisor is the culprit, then go to human resources directly. Keep a copy of your diary for your records, but let human resources know what's going on.

Timeliness of Filing

    Be aware that you have a minimum of 180 days from the harassment date to file a charge with the EEOC, depending on the state in which you work. In states where there are laws that prohibit this activity, you have up to 300 days to file a charge. If your employer doesn't resolve the situation or the harassment continues after you have filed a complaint, you will need to file a charge of discrimination with the EEOC or your state's labor department. States that have fair employment practice departments or agencies also file your charge with the EEOC on your behalf, so you only have to file with one agency.

Filing Process

    Before you can file in court, you must file with the EEOC first on all claims of harassment under the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The process starts with a review of the case by the commission; it might ask you to settle the case through mediation with your company using a neutral mediator. If the commission decides not to send the case to mediation or it doesn't work, an EEOC investigator will research the case. If the investigator cannot find a violation of law, you will be provided a "Right to Sue" notice. If a law violation has been discovered by the investigator, the EEOC might attempt to reach a settlement with your employer. When a settlement cannot be reached, the EEOC's legal staff will make a determination if it is going to pursue the case in court. If not, you will be awarded the notice that you can sue.

Claim Dismissal

    When you file a claim, sometimes the EEOC finds that it might have little chance of success of winning or it might involve issues outside of its jurisdiction. In these scenarios, the EEOC might dismiss the charge without doing an investigation. To avoid this, keep accurate records as to the offensiveness and frequency of the conduct of all who contributed to the abuse. Your case has a better chance of being heard when it meets the EEOC's qualifications of "severe and pervasive." It's important to ensure that you have a valid complaint as defined under discrimination laws before you take legal steps against your employer.

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