Workplace harassment continues to be a problem at federal agencies, with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) reporting that most of the claims filed in 2019 were related to harassment.
Federal employees should familiarize themselves with applicable harassment laws. These laws not only protect employees’ rights but can also potentially eliminate future incidents of harassment.
What Is Considered Harassment in the Workplace?
Some people assume workplace harassment is just another term for sexual harassment.
However, sexual harassment is only one type of workplace harassment that employees may suffer. Harassment can be verbal, psychological, physical, or in the form of online bullying.
Workplace harassment occurs anytime an employee suffers unwelcome or unwanted conduct based on:
- Sex (including pregnancy),
- National origin,
- Age (40 or older),
- Disability, or
- Genetic information.
Harassment becomes illegal when the conduct creates an intimidating or hostile work environment or is offensive to reasonable people.
There is a threshold test, whether the harassment is sufficiently severe or pervasive. Minor annoyances or petty slights will not typically rise to the level of unlawful workplace harassment.
Examples of illegal workplace harassment include offensive jokes, physical assaults, racial slurs, intimidation, and conduct that interferes with work performance.
Sexual harassment can include requests for sexual favors, unwelcome sexual advances, quid pro quo harassment, or other physical or verbal harassment of a sexual nature.
In many cases, sexual harassment is not overt or physical; it’s often masked in comments or banter, making future encounters uncomfortable and awkward.
Sexual harassment victims can be female or male. They may even be the same sex as their harasser. In 2019, sexual harassment claims accounted for 10.3% of the EEOC’s total complaints.
Harassment also includes retaliation for engaging in protected EEO activity. Anti-discrimination laws provide that harassment against people in retaliation for filing a discrimination complaint or engaging in other protected EEO activity is illegal.
This protected activity includes someone who has filed a discrimination charge or participated in an investigation, or other EEO-type proceedings, requested a reasonable accommodation, or provided testimony in another employee’s EEO complaint.
Complaints involving retaliation comprise more than half of all complaints filed with the EEOC. Out of 72,675 complaints filed in 2019, 39,110 involved retaliation.
When Are Employers Liable for Workplace Harassment?
Federal employers can be held liable for workplace harassment even when they are not directly involved. An employer must take reasonable action to prevent any harassment in the workplace. If harassment has occurred, the employer must take swift corrective action.
Federal agencies will be automatically liable for harassment by someone in a supervisory position that resulted in termination, loss of wages, failure to hire or promote, or other negative employment action.
Suppose a supervisor’s alleged harassment resulted in a hostile work environment. In that case, the employer could be held responsible unless that employer can prove that it took appropriate preventative and corrective measures, and the involved employees did not follow the applicable policies.
Harassment by non-supervisory employees or non-employees the employer controls, like a customer or independent contractor, is handled a bit differently.
Employers are only held liable if they knew or should have known about the harassment and did not take swift and necessary corrective action.
The best way to eliminate workplace harassment is to prevent it before it happens. Agencies should have an effective grievance or complaint process so that employees can report any unwanted conduct immediately.
Speaking with employees about harassment and establishing anti-harassment training for both supervisory staff and employees are essential components of harassment prevention.
What Can Employees Do About Harassment in the Workplace?
When harassment occurs in the federal workplace, employees must take action to try and stop it.
Employees can start by trying to resolve the issue at the lowest level, speaking directly with the person who has committed the harassment. It’s important to communicate that you find the behavior or words offensive.
If the harassment continues, employees should follow the applicable reporting procedures for their employer. Report the conduct early on to keep it from escalating.
Employees can also file a complaint with their agency’s EEO office, which eventually could come directly before the EEOC.
Consult a Federal Employee Lawyer Today
If you are a victim of federal workplace harassment, it may affect your work performance. The job you once loved may now be a source of extreme stress.
You may experience difficulty sleeping, mood swings, or other symptoms as a result. Taking action to stop unwanted conduct can help you feel better.
Putting a stop to workplace harassment can protect you and your federal career that you’ve worked so hard for over the years.
Don’t let someone get away with workplace harassment. Speak with a skilled federal workplace harassment lawyer who can help you understand your legal options.
At the Law Office of Aaron D. Wersing, our focus is federal employee law, including workplace harassment.
We can advise you on the best course of action and guide you through the process of reporting the unlawful harassment you have suffered. Our primary goals are to protect your rights and to make the harassment stop.