Educating Your Clients on Their Rights Regarding Workplace Harassment

What constitutes unlawful harassment?

Harassment is a form of employment discrimination that violates Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967, and the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990.

Harassment is unwelcome conduct that is based on race, color, religion, sex (including pregnancy), national origin, age (40 or older), disability or genetic information.

Harassment becomes unlawful when 1) enduring the offensive conduct becomes a condition of continued employment, or 2) the conduct is severe or pervasive enough to create a work environment that a reasonable person would consider intimidating, hostile, or abusive.

Where to file a complaint?

The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) is the federal agency to call if your clients experience discrimination or harassment in the workplace. The EEOC enforces federal laws prohibiting employment discrimination. A person can file a complaint with the EEOC when their workplace becomes what is considered to be hostile. “Hostile” means intimidating, offensive, abusive and/or otherwise offensive, going beyond rudeness or casual joking. To qualify as a “hostile” workplace, conduct must be intentional, severe, recurring, and/or pervasive to the extent that it interferes with the employee’s ability to perform his or her job.

A complaint must be filed online or over the phone before meeting in person at your local EEOC office. When filing a complaint, it is always helpful if clients bring to the meeting any information or papers that will help EEOC understand their case. For example, if a client was fired because of their performance, he or she might bring in a recent performance evaluation, as well as the letter or notice stating that he or she was fired. If possible, the client may also want to bring the names and contact information of anyone who knows about the incident or ongoing harassment.

The client can bring third parties, such as family members or friends, to this meeting, and should do so especially if he or she needs language assistance. Alternatively, if the client needs special assistance during the meeting, such as a sign language or a language interpreter, let the EEOC office know ahead of time so it can make arrangements. The client can also bring a lawyer, although it is not necessary to hire a lawyer to file a charge.

Please note, an employer must have a certain number of employees to be covered by the laws enforced by the EEOC. This number varies depending on the type of employer (for example, whether the employer is a private company, a state or local government agency, a federal agency, an employment agency, or a labor union) and the kind of discrimination alleged (for example, discrimination based on a person’s race, color, religion, sex (including pregnancy, gender identity, and sexual orientation), national origin, age (40 or older), disability or genetic information). Figuring out whether or not an employer is covered can be complicated. If you aren’t sure about whether coverage exists, you should contact your local EEOC office as soon as possible and they will make that decision. It is also important to keep in mind that, if an employer is not covered by the laws EEOC enforces, the employer still may be covered by a state or local anti-discrimination law. If it is, EEOC can refer you to the state or local agency that enforces that law.

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