If you’ve ever worked in an office before, you’ve probably had to sit through one of those awful 80’s-style videos on sexual harassment. They’re all pretty much the same: A sleazy-looking man comments on a new female colleague’s tight blouse or skirt, and the woman sits there flabbergasted like a damsel in distress.
For better or worse, we’ve come a long way from this stereotypical model of what employee harassment looks like. In fact, on-the-job harassment doesn’t have to be explicit in nature. Harassment can take many forms, and it’s important that you know how to fight back as a victim.
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Types of employee harassment
First, let’s get one thing straight: Whether you work in a corporate environment or a beach-front café where the servers wear shorts and roller skates, as an employee, you deserve to be respected and not harassed.
So what exactly constitutes harassment? Essentially, it boils down to acting inappropriately and making a coworker feel uncomfortable, but the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) defines it as “unwelcome conduct that is based on race, color, religion, sex (including pregnancy), national origin, age (40 or older), disability or genetic information.”
Furthermore, according to the EEOC, harassment becomes unlawful when:
- Enduring the offensive conduct becomes a condition of continued employment; or
- The conduct is severe enough to create a working environment that a reasonable person would consider intimidating, hostile, or abusive
In other words, it’s not just rude, but actually illegal, to make inappropriate comments or exhibit unsuitable behavior to others based on their:
- Gender identity
- Skin color
- Sexual orientation
- Physical or mental disability
So let’s say Mona is pregnant when her coworker Bill shouts, “Hey Mona, looking hefty today. Is that a baby gut or a donut belly? I can’t tell. At your age, it’s doubtful you’d even be able to have kids!”
In one fell swoop, Bill has just engaged in multiple forms of workplace harassment. Way to go, Bill.
What to do if you witness employee harassment
So now let’s imagine you happened to be walking by and heard Bill’s winning comment. What do you do?
Your first step is to document the incident. Write everything down, including the date, time, and details of what was said or done. Jot down the names of any other people who might have witnessed the harassment as well.
Next, reach out to the victim (in our case, poor Mona). Inform her that you witnessed the incident and would like to report it.
Finally, speak to your manager or human resources contact, if you have one, about what happened. Now if you work in a retail establishment or restaurant, you may not have a human resources department. Rather, your manager probably serves as your HR contact. That’s okay. The key is to share what you know with someone who has the power to do something about it.
What to do if you’re the victim of employee harassment
Being on the receiving end of harassment can be upsetting, humiliating, and downright soul-sucking. Who wants to come to work every day and endure abuse?
The first thing to do if you experience harassment is to document the incident. Write down what happened, when and how it happened, and who was around to witness it.
The next step involves seeking backup from those who saw you being harassed. Tell them that you intend to go to your manager and ask them to both document their accounts of what happened and pledge their support.
Finally, report the incident officially. File a claim with your HR department if you have one. Otherwise, file a complaint with your manager. It’s usually best to discuss the issue face to face (especially if you have a good relationship with your manager), but you should also follow up that in-person meeting with an email or something in writing. This way, there’s proof that you brought the issue to your manager’s attention.
Let’s say you’re being harassed but aren’t comfortable discussing it with your boss—or, worse yet, your boss is the one doing the harassment. The good news is that you can still take action.
You always have the option of filing a complaint with the EEOC. You can do this in person or by mail. Furthermore, you can consult with an attorney, or other third-party, who handles workplace harassment and discrimination issues. Some lawyers offer contingency fees where rather than charge for their services, they take a cut of whatever settlement you get.
So what if you’re not looking for a settlement, but rather just want the harassment to go away? Unfortunately, unless your manager or company takes a stand, you may need to take matters into your own hands—which you should.
Remember, on-the-job harassment can happen to anyone at any time. It can be persistent or intermittent. It can be low-grade offensive or outright ludicrous. But no matter what type it is, it’s the type you don’t deserve, so don’t ever, ever hesitate to fight back.