Addressing Harassment in the Workplace: Legal Remedies and Reporting Procedures

Workplace harassment continues to be a pervasive issue affecting employees across industries. Between fiscal years 2018 and 2021, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) received a staggering 98,411 charges alleging harassment. 

With numbers like these, it’s clear that concerted efforts are needed to curb unlawful harassment and take appropriate action when it occurs. This article delves into the legal frameworks prohibiting harassment, criteria that constitute a violation, employer responsibilities, and employee reporting procedures.

The Need for Addressing Workplace Harassment

How often do you think employees are subjected to workplace harassment? In a survey by the Los Angeles Personnel Department, it was found that 18% of the survey attendees faced harassment in their work environment.

In some organizations, employees are being fired for inappropriate reasons. A few tend to tolerate all these or remain silent as they lack a legal support system.

If you face any such harassment or wrongful termination in Los Angeles, you can always seek out a wrongful termination attorney in Los Angeles. So that you will understand your rights and see to it that you are not treated unfairly and threatened in the name of termination. 

Several federal legislations establish the protections against workplace harassment:

  • Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 – This landmark law prohibits employment discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, and national origin. It covers harassment that creates a hostile work environment, even if it doesn’t result in economic injury. Employees can file charges with the EEOC for violation of Title VII. 
  • Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 (ADEA) – The ADEA protects applicants and employees 40 years and older from harassment and discrimination based on age. It covers hiring, promotions, wages, benefits, and other privileges of employment. 
  • Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA) – The ADA prohibits disability-based harassment that unreasonably interferes with work performance. Hostile work environment harassment occurs when offensive conduct related to an employee’s disability creates intimidating, hostile, or offensive work conditions.
  • Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act of 2008 – This law prohibits discrimination based on genetic information. Harassment targeting employees based on their genetic background violates GINA.

These federal laws provide the backbone for addressing unlawful harassment of all forms in the workplace. Violations can result in substantial civil penalties and damages against employers. 

Criteria Defining Unlawful Harassment For unwelcome conduct to be considered unlawful harassment, it must meet specific criteria: It must be based on protected characteristics – race, color, religion, sex, national origin, age, disability, or genetic information.

Criteria Defining Unlawful Harassment 

For unwelcome conduct to be considered unlawful harassment, it must meet certain criteria:

  • It must be based on protected characteristics – race, color, religion, sex, national origin, age, disability, or genetic information.
  • It should be severe or pervasive enough to create an intimidating, hostile, or abusive work environment. The harassment must alter the conditions of employment. 
  • A single incident typically does not qualify as harassment unless it involves an employment consequence like firing or demotion. The harassment is usually repetitive.
  • Both victim and harasser can be any gender, and the victim does not have to be the person directly targeted. Anyone affected by the offensive conduct can be considered a victim.

Understanding these thresholds is key to identifying and proving unlawful harassment.

Examples of Offensive Conduct 

Harassment encompasses a wide spectrum of unwelcome behaviors. Some common examples include:

  • Offensive jokes, slurs, epithets and name-calling
  • Physical assaults, threats, or intimidation
  • Mockery, ridicule, or insults
  • Displaying offensive objects, pictures, cartoons, or posters
  • Making lewd gestures, mimicking behaviors, or staring in a suggestive manner

In fiscal year 2018, the EEOC received 7,609 sexual harassment charges – a 13.6% increase from the previous year. This shows both the prevalence and rising awareness of harassment behaviors.

Potential Harassers and Victims

Harassers can be supervisors, managers, co-workers, or non-employees like clients or vendors. Under Title VII, the employer is automatically liable for harassment by a supervisor that results in negative employment actions like termination or demotion.

On the other hand, victims can be persons directly targeted by harassment or those affected by the offensive conduct, even if it wasn’t directed at them. Bystanders who witness severe harassment can also be considered victims when it impacts their work environment. 

Prevention and Corrective Measures for Employers

Employers play a crucial role in instituting preventive measures and correcting harassment when it occurs:

  • Implement a harassment complaint process – Have multiple clear-cut channels for employees to report misconduct confidentially. Ensure anti-retaliation protections.
  • Conduct anti-harassment training – Educate all employees on behaviors that constitute harassment. Training for managers should focus on properly handling complaints.
  • Take prompt action when notified – Investigate complaints promptly, impartially, and discreetly. Based on the investigation findings, take immediate corrective action like reprimand, suspension, or termination.

These actions demonstrate the employer’s commitment to preventing unlawful harassment and fulfilling their legal obligations.

Employee’s Role in Addressing Harassment 

Employees also have an important part to play in arresting harassment:

  • Directly inform the harasser – If comfortable, politely tell the harasser to stop the unwelcome conduct. State that their behavior offends and interferes with work.
  • Management report – Bring any harassment behaviors to the relevant supervisor or HR personnel through proper channels. Give detailed factual accounts of incidents.
  • Maintain records – Keep a journal recording incidents with dates, times, locations, individuals involved, and witnesses present. Save offensive materials and document how the harassment impacted work. 

Though only a small percentage of affected individuals report harassment, doing so can prevent escalation and impose accountability. Between fiscal years 2018 and 2021, EEOC resolutions resulted in nearly $300 million in receipts for victims – demonstrating the power of speaking up.

Employer Liability for Harassment  

Employers are automatically liable for harassment by supervisors that leads to tangible employment actions like firing or demotion. However, they can avoid liability for hostile work environment claims when:

  • No tangible employment action was taken against the victim.
  • The employer exercised reasonable care to prevent and promptly correct harassment.
  • The employee unreasonably failed to utilize complaint mechanisms.

For harassment by non-employees, employers are liable where they knew, or should have known, about the misconduct but failed to take immediate and appropriate corrective action.

Establishing these defenses requires concrete evidence like anti-harassment policies, training records, and prompt investigation and action documentation.

The Role of EEOC in Investigating Allegations

When a harassment charge is filed with the EEOC, investigators undertake a comprehensive review of the full record, including complaint procedures, historical evidence, the testimony of the parties and witnesses, the impact of the conduct, and corrective actions. 

Each case is evaluated on its facts and circumstances to ascertain whether the harassment meets the standard of creating a hostile work environment. This requires looking at frequency and severity considering the “totality of circumstances.”

Appropriate remedies are determined based on findings.

Frequently Asked Questions

What constitutes a hostile work environment?

A hostile work environment is created when harassment based on a protected characteristic is severe or pervasive enough to alter the conditions of employment and create an intimidating, hostile, or abusive atmosphere. This determination depends on the frequency and severity of the conduct based on a “reasonable person” standard.

How can employers prove they took reasonable measures to prevent and correct harassment?

Employers need clear anti-harassment policies, regular training of all employees, multiple reporting mechanisms, prompt investigation procedures, corrective actions like reprimand or termination, and documented evidence of these efforts.

Are there specific time limits for filing a charge with the EEOC?

Yes, charges must be filed within 180 days from the date of harassment or 300 days if the charge is filed with a state or local anti-discrimination agency. These limits underscore the need to maintain detailed records of incidents.

Key Takeaway

Workplace harassment has far-reaching impacts on employees as well as employers. By understanding legal frameworks, prohibited behaviors, liability conditions and reporting procedures, organizations can take proactive and corrective measures to stamp out unlawful harassment. 

No workplace should tolerate a hostile culture, and it is incumbent on all parties to speak out against harassment.


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