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How to Respond to Harassment In the Workplace

Unlawful workplace harassment is defined as unwelcome or offensive behavior that is based on an employee's protected characteristic, such as their race, sex, religion, national origin, disability, or age. Harassment can occur in a variety of forms, including physical or verbal harassment, it can occur on or off of the worksite, and it can be perpetrated by officers of the company, supervisors, colleagues, or even non-employees (such as clients or customers).

It's important to note that, in general, teasing or an isolated comment may not be illegal. To be legally actionable, harassment must be severe (meaning very serious) or pervasive (meaning it happened frequently) such that it creates a hostile or offensive work environment or results in an adverse employment decision (such as the victim being fired or demoted).

Different Forms of Workplace Harassment

Workplace harassment can take many forms, such as offensive jokes, slurs, name-calling, physical assaults, threats, intimidation, cyberbullying, ridicule, insults, offensive pictures, and more.

Sexual harassment, one of the most commonly recognized types, can involve unwanted sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, or other verbal or physical harassment of a sexual nature. However, harassment isn't limited to sexual harassment and can be based on a person's sexual orientation, age, race, religion, disability or other protected characteristics. 

Objecting to or opposing harassment in the workplace is protected conduct. If an employee is subject to an adverse employment action for objecting to or opposing sexual harassment, they may have a claim for retaliation. 

Legal Aspects of Workplace Harassment

Laws and Regulations Against Workplace Harassment

Federal and state laws protect employees from harassment in the workplace. At the federal level, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Title VII), the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 (ADEA), and the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA) all prohibit harassment. Title VII and the ADA apply to employers with 15 or more employees, and the ADEA to employers with 20 or more employees. These laws apply to federal, state, and local governments, private employers, and employment agencies.

In Minnesota, the Minnesota Human Rights Act prohibits employment discrimination, including harassment, based on race, color, creed, religion, national origin, sex, gender identity, marital status, status with regard to public assistance, familial status, membership or activity in a local commission, disability, sexual orientation, or age. It also applies to employers of any size, offering broader protection than federal laws.

Identifying Workplace Harassment

Recognizing Signs of Harassment

Recognizing the signs of workplace harassment is crucial for both employees and employers. Harassment can often be subtle and insidious, making it difficult to identify. Some common signs include unwelcome comments or jokes, offensive emails or texts, inappropriate physical contact, and displays of offensive images or objects. 

It's important to note that the victim of harassment does not have to be the person directly targeted by the offensive behavior. For instance, in certain circumstances, an employee who overhears offensive jokes or comments can be a victim of harassment, even if the jokes or comments were not directed at them.

Responding to Workplace Harassment

Immediate Steps to Take When Harassed

If you are experiencing workplace harassment, there are several steps you can take. First, if you are comfortable doing so, tell the person who is harassing you that their behavior is unwelcome and ask them to stop. Sometimes individuals are not aware that their behavior is offensive, and directly addressing the issue can help resolve the situation.

However, if the harassment continues, or if you do not feel comfortable confronting the harasser, you should report the behavior to a supervisor, HR representative, or other appropriate person within your organization. Employers often maintain a written harassment policy detailing who an employee should contact in order to report harassment. 

Reporting Harassment to Management or HR

Reporting harassment is a crucial step and should be done promptly. When you report the harassment, be prepared to provide detailed information about the incidents, including who was involved, what happened, when and where it happened, and whether there were any witnesses. It can be helpful to keep a written record of the incidents to support your claim.

Once you have reported the harassment, your employer has a legal obligation to take appropriate corrective action. This can include disciplining or terminating the harasser, providing training to employees, or implementing new policies or procedures to prevent further harassment. If your employer fails to take action, or if you face retaliation for reporting the harassment, you should consult with a legal professional.

Seeking Legal Assistance for Workplace Harassment

If you are experiencing workplace harassment, seeking legal assistance can be a crucial step in protecting your rights. A knowledgeable employment law attorney can guide you through the process of reporting the harassment, filing a complaint with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission or Minnesota Department of Human Rights, and, if necessary, filing a lawsuit against your employer.

At Nichols Kaster, PLLP, we have extensive experience in employment law and are dedicated to protecting the rights of employees. We understand the devastating impact that workplace harassment can have on individuals and are committed to holding employers accountable for their actions. If you are experiencing workplace harassment, we encourage you to contact us for a consultation. We can provide you with the guidance and support you need to navigate this challenging situation.

Contact us today at (877) 344-4628 for a consultation!