Workplace harassment is an issue that happens in all kinds of workplaces across industries and professions. It has become a growing concern as society becomes more aware of its implications and demands an end to these types of issues.
Harassment is defined as any unwelcome conduct based on race, color, religion, sex, national origin, age, disability, or genetic information and can manifest in various forms. It can range from subtle discrimination to overt bullying. Harassment is a silent yet rather important issue that can have serious consequences for the individuals who are subject to it. With that said, it is important to be aware of your rights and the legal avenues available to address such misconduct.
Whilst the most prevalent consequence of workplace harassment is an emotional toll, it can also lead to much more severe professional and psychological repercussions. Moreover, it erodes the trust and cohesion within organizations, hinders productivity, and fosters a toxic culture.
In this article, we will therefore dive into a very relevant question, namely whether or not you can sue a company for harassment. We’ll explore the legal implications and discuss the different avenues you can explore if you are subject to any form of workplace harassment, whether it is sexual harassment, workplace bullying, or discrimination based on protected characteristics.
First things first, what is harassment? It’s sometimes a term that is thrown around lightly but in order to actually make a case, you need to understand harassment so that you know whether you have any grounds to escalate things – even legally if necessary.
Different Forms of Harassment
As discussed earlier, harassment in the workplace can take different forms. Let’s discuss the three most common forms:
Sexual Harassment: Sexual harassment is one of the most common types of harassment that can happen to both men and women, although it tends to be more common for women. It is a pervasive issue that can manifest in verbal, non-verbal, or physical conduct of a sexual nature. This can include unwelcome comments, advances, or requests for sexual favors. It’s important that you understand the nuances of sexual harassment is crucial to determine whether what you are experiencing is actual harassment.
Workplace Bullying: Another common form of harassment is workplace bullying. This is not always recognized as readily as other forms of harassment but the issue is that it can be just as damaging. This behavior involves persistent mistreatment, humiliation, or intimidation, often with the intent to undermine the target’s professional competence or personal well-being. Workplace bullying can create a hostile work environment and a toxic atmosphere.
Discrimination: Lastly, we have discrimination, which is a form of harassment that is based on protected characteristics, such as race, color, religion, sex, national origin, age, disability, or genetic information. Note that discrimination can happen for any of the mentioned reasons, regardless if it’s a minority group or not. It can manifest itself in the form of unequal treatment, derogatory comments, or exclusionary practices. Ultimately, this contributes to a toxic atmosphere for targeted individuals.
Impact of Harassment on Victims
As you can imagine, harassment can have negative consequences not only for the person subject to it but also for the workplace culture at large.
1. Psychological Effects: First, we have the psychological effects of harassment. It can have a huge emotional toll which can lead to anxiety, depression, and even post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). People subject to harassment often experience feelings of isolation and powerlessness. This does not only impact their professional lives but also their overall well-being.
2. Professional Consequences: Naturally, workplace harassment can also lead to consequences in the professional career which goes beyond the psychological impact. People who are subject to harassment may experience career stagnation, job loss, or difficulty securing new employment. The issue with harassment is that it often causes a fear of retaliation which often prevents victims from reporting incidents. This ultimately prolongs the cycle of abuse.
Firstly, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act was enacted in 1964 and is a landmark piece of legislation that prohibits employment discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. This law plays a central role in the fight against harassment and is meant to offer protection for employees and applicants in various work settings.
Another important law is The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) which was enacted in 1990. This law prohibits discrimination against individuals with disabilities in various aspects of public life, including employment. This law requires employers to provide reasonable accommodations to qualified individuals with disabilities. Of course, harassment based on disability is strictly prohibited.
Last but not least, we have the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA) which is aimed at protecting individuals aged 40 and older from age-based discrimination. It ensures that employment decisions are based on factors other than an employee’s age. If an employer harasses due to age, it can have legal consequences
Employees have some responsibilities to ensure a safe environment for their employees. In other words, even though the harassment is not coming from the employer, simply being complacent and not doing anything about the issue after it was brought to their attention could lead to consequences.
Duty to Prevent Harassment
Employers have a legal obligation to take proactive measures to prevent harassment in the workplace. This includes implementing anti-harassment policies, conducting regular training, and promptly addressing any reported incidents. If employers fail to do this, they could be held accountable.
When harassment is reported and brought to the employers’ attention, they are required to conduct a thorough and impartial investigation. This means gathering evidence, interviewing involved parties, and ultimately taking appropriate action to remedy the situation. If an employer fails to investigate when a harassment issue is brought to their attention, it could lead to legal consequences for the employer.
Consequences for Non-Compliance
If companies fail to comply with anti-harassment laws, they may also face consequences, including legal action, financial penalties, and damage to their reputation. There is a legal framework set in place with the purpose of protecting individuals from harassment and holding employers accountable for fostering a safe and inclusive work environment.
Requirements for a Lawsuit
If you are subject to harassment in the workplace, you are probably wondering what the steps are to proceed with a lawsuit. Let’s go through all the steps required to succeed with a lawsuit.
Frequency and Severity of Harassment
In order to succeed with a harassment lawsuit, you need to demonstrate that the harassment you experienced was pervasive, frequent, and severe enough to create a hostile work environment. When brought in front of a court, they generally consider the overall pattern of behavior rather than isolated incidents. You need to be able to prove that it is a regular occurrence and not a one time event.
Impact on the Work Environment
Next, you need to be able to show that the harassment had a detrimental impact on the workplace environment. For example, it could include showing evidence of lowered morale, decreased productivity, or a general sense of fear and discomfort among employees. If you are able to establish this, it will help strengthen the case for a hostile work environment claim.
Importance of Documenting Incidents
As with all types of lawsuits, you need to have strong evidence and proof to support your claims of harassment. This is why it is so important to document as much as possible related to the incidents. This may include things like dates, times, locations, and individuals involved. Other types of evidence will also help you strengthen your case.
Reporting to Supervisors or HR
Before taking legal action, employees are generally required to follow internal reporting procedures before pursuing legal action. Legal action should generally just be a last resort if you do not get any support from your supervisors or HR and the harassment continues.
Your supervisors, human resources, or other designated channels have a responsibility to listen to your concerns and do something about it. In most cases, this will help remedy the situation but if nothing happens, you of course have the possibility of taking legal action. Talking to the leaders or HR of the company is also a way to build your case by demonstrating that you took reasonable measures to address the issue internally.
Filing a Complaint with the EEOC
Before you file a lawsuit, it is often required that you file a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). This is the federal agency that is responsible for enforcing anti-discrimination laws. This is an important step that is necessary to exchange administrative remedies before you take legal action. It also allows the EEOC to investigate the matter or issue a right-to-sue letter. If they do, you can proceed with a lawsuit.
As you can see, there are several important steps you need to take before you move on to a formal lawsuit. Do not skip any of these steps as they will ultimately help you with the viability of your harassment lawsuit. Courts expect individuals to follow established procedures, report incidents promptly, and give employers an opportunity to address the situation.
If you can prove that you have done all these things and the situation still hasn’t gotten better, it strengthens your legal standing if you do decide to proceed with the lawsuit.
The journey of a lawsuit can be long and there are plenty of challenges you may face along the way. If you intend to proceed with a lawsuit, it can be good to know what to expect, and most importantly, be aware of potential challenges you may face.
Time Constraints for Filing a Lawsuit
The first challenge related to harassment lawsuits is the statute of limitations and the time constraints that come with it.
This is a legal timeframe that dictates how long a person has to file a lawsuit after the alleged harassment occurred. The specific limitation period varies depending on the type of harassment and the applicable laws but it’s important to know the applicable time limit in your particular case and jurisdiction. Ultimately, missing this deadline can result in the dismissal of the case.
Reasonable Preventive Measures
When you embark on a lawsuit, you must be prepared to face defenses from the defendant, i.e., the company. They will often argue that they took reasonable measures to prevent and address harassment within the organization so you need to prove that this was not the case.
However, if the company did implement things like anti-harassment policies, conducted training programs, and investigated reported incidents, it will be harder for you to make your case. However, you can counter such defenses by demonstrating that the preventive measures were insufficient or that the employer did not adequately address the reported harassment.
The Severity or Frequency of Alleged Harassment
Another challenge is that employers may challenge the severity or frequency of the alleged harassment with the purpose of downplaying its significance. To tackle this defense, you need to have thorough documentation so that you can present a compelling case that establishes the pervasive and harmful nature of the harassment.
Alternatives to Lawsuits
Lawsuits are complex, lengthy, and often costly endeavors. For that reason, a lot of people choose to explore other venues for a faster and more convenient resolution. The two main alternatives you have at your disposal include mediation and arbitration.
Mediation involves having a neutral third party that facilitates communication between the parties involved in a dispute. This is a voluntary and confidential process where the mediator helps both parties reach a mutually acceptable resolution. Meditation is a much more convenient alternative to a lawsuit that allows for open dialogue and hopefully finding a mutually acceptable solution.
Arbitration is another alternative solution that is more formal than traditional litigation. It involves having an impartial arbitrator or panel that reviews the evidence from both parties and then makes a binding decision. Some employment contracts may even have mandatory arbitration clauses that require employees to resolve disputes such as harassment claims through arbitration rather than pursuing a lawsuit. With that said, you may have to use arbitration before you can consider a formal lawsuit.
Pros of Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR)
- Quicker Resolution: ADR processes like mediation and arbitration can often resolve disputes faster than traditional lawsuits.
- Cost-Effective: ADR can be more cost-effective which saves both parties the expenses associated with prolonged legal proceedings.
- Preservation of Relationships: Mediation, in particular, can help preserve relationships thanks to open communication and understanding. Lawsuits tend to be far more hostile and lead to damaged relationships.
Cons of Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR)
- Enforceability Issues: Decisions reached through mediation may not always be legally enforceable. In arbitration, on the other hand, there is a binding nature of the decision which therefore limits avenues for appeal.
- Power Dynamics: In arbitration, there may be concerns about power imbalances favoring employers. This is particularly relevant if mandatory arbitration clauses are present in employment contracts.
- Limited Remedies: ADR may not offer the full range of remedies available through a lawsuit like as punitive damages.