How to File a Harassment Complaint at Work

Katie McBeth
Reading Time: 10 minutes

No workplace is perfect, and many work days might be stressful or trying on your nerves. However, no workplace should be hostile or unsafe for the employees that work there. Hostile work environments harm more than the employee affected, and offices should consider it a top priority to eliminate hostile or harmful behavior from their staff.

Unfortunately, some of that harmful behavior may still slip under the radar. In these cases, it is up to the employee to inform their employer about harassment in the workplace. However, that might be easier said than done.

What are the exact steps you should follow to file a harassment claim at your work? Is filing a sexual harassment complaint any different than a traditional harassment complaint? And if your company is unwilling to comply with your needs, what should you do next?

Filing a harassment complaint can be tricky and a bit scary, but is extremely important for notifying your employer about harmful behavior. Let’s dive into the specifics of how to file a harassment complaint at work.

How to Report Harassment

There could be many reasons why a victim would not want to file a harassment complaint. It could be that they are afraid of retaliation, don’t think their case will be taken seriously, or simply don’t want to get caught up in a scandal. However, it is extremely important to report any instances of harassment or bullying in your office so the business can work to make it a safer place for everyone employed there. Harmful behaviors can escalate and can directly affect your work. Ignoring the problem will only allow it to continue.

Additionally, not following your company’s protocol for reporting harassment could mean you are unable to hold the business legally responsible for harassment down the road. Be sure to read and understand the portion of your employee manual that details how to report harassment to human resources (HR).

As discussed previously on Fiscal Tiger and defined by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, harassment is unwelcome conduct (both verbally and through action) that is based on race, color, religion, sex (including pregnancy), gender, age (over 40), disability, national origin, or genetic information. Harassment becomes a legal issue when it can interfere with someone’s employment, or when it becomes so pervasive that it creates an abusive and hostile environment.

Although single isolated incidents might not constitute as “harassment” by the EEOC, they should still be noted for your personal records in case a pattern is created. In fact, this is the first step you should take after an incident occurs: make a note of what happened, when and where you were located, who witnessed the incident, and who was involved. Notes can help you remember all the details correctly, and can help your business build a legal case against the harasser if it ever escalates to that point.

If you believe you are being continually harassed, check your employee manual to find the exact guidelines of how to report harassment. If none are listed, then reach out to your HR department and be clear about your intentions to report harassment. Once you have a chance to sit down with them, you can go over your notes about each individual case that you’ve been able to document. File a complaint, and be sure to request and keep a copy of that complaint for your personal records.

Unfortunately for some, reporting harassment might be impeded by the fact that the harasser works within HR or might be their direct supervisor. If this is the case, then find the next person up the chain of command (whether that if you supervisor’s manager, or maybe even the head of HR), and notify them of the harassment and why you didn’t follow the typical protocol for reporting. They should understand your issue, and be willing to make an exception for your case.

How to Report Sexual Harassment

Harassment in any form can be traumatizing to experience and difficult to report, but sexual harassment can be especially difficult. Just like any other form of harassment, it should be reported according to your company’s policy. However, there are some additional things you should consider.

For one, you should be extremely diligent in keeping notes about the unwanted behavior. If you haven’t been able to keep notes on past behavior, take the time now to try to remember each incident. Going forward, be sure to keep track of all the important information, including:

  • Who the harasser is/was
  • What they said
  • Who else witnessed it
  • The location, time, and date of the incident
  • How it affected your work for the day

If you feel safe doing so, report the harassment as soon as possible to your supervisor, or your company’s HR or litigation team. They should investigate any complaints thoroughly and promptly, and will work to make you feel safe in the office.

After you’ve had the chance to sit down with your supervisor or HR department, take the time to confide in your friends or family if you feel comfortable. Sexual harassment can be difficult to process, and creating a support group can help validate your experience and bolster you for any potential outcomes.

Not all businesses will treat sexual harassment with the seriousness it deserves. It’s also important to remember that no matter what steps your company takes to silence you (such as with a private-arbitration clause), you will always have the legal protection of the EEOC when experiencing continued harassment of any form. Any waiver your employer may have you sign should not limit your ability to file with the EEOC concerning any harassment. Even if you are not interested in filing an EEOC complaint, you should still be able to talk with your nearest field office for insight and resources.

If you do decide to file a charge of harassment with the EEOC, be sure to do it within 180 days of the last incident. You do not need an attorney to file, although legal guidance is always recommended in these scenarios.

Legal Requirements and the Burden of Proof for a Hostile Work Environment

Any form of harassment that you experience should be reported to your company. One of the main reasons why is that a company can not be held liable for harassment if they were not made aware of the issue. If you report it, the legal liability then falls on the company to investigate the claims appropriately or they could face legal consequences. They must use reasonable care to prevent or correct the reported harmful behavior.

However, this is another reason why it is important to notate any harassment that you experience. It can provide examples to the company of how the harassment happened, and they can use that information to investigate the case.

There are also scenarios where you may not have time to report the harassment before retaliation occurs. For example, let’s say you experienced sexual harassment from a boss and were promptly fired for not doing as you were asked. In this scenario (and others like it), the company is held liable for the harassment, even though you did not report it. This is because the harassing employee acted on behalf of the company to retaliate against you: a victim.

Here is a list of scenarios where the company would be liable for harassment:

  • If the company was notified but failed to investigate any claims or failed to correct the behavior.
  • If you were fired before you could notify the company, or you experienced retaliation (loss in pay, position, or were passed up for a promotion/raise) for reporting harassment.
  • If the company was aware of harassment (for example: a supervisor/HR member witnessed it) but failed to investigate or take reasonable care to prevent or correct the harmful behavior.

However, the business would not be liable for harassment in these scenarios:

  • The business can prove they were not made aware of any damaging behavior, or that the employee (victim) unreasonably failed to take advantage of opportunities the employer offered to prevent harassment (such as filing a complaint).
  • The business can prove they were made aware of the behavior, and that they took reasonable care to prevent it from continuing or corrected the harasser. This can include issuing sensitivity awareness classes or sexual harassment lectures.

Isolated Incidents Versus Pervasive Behaviors

As a general rule — as designated by the EEOC — small slights or annoyances do not count as harassment. Single isolated incidents, although they can be troubling, will not be considered illegal unless they are shown to be extremely severe. Severe cases could include immediate retaliation against a victim or threats of violence that create an extremely hostile environment.

However, pervasive behaviors and continued harassment will always be considered illegal. If you have experienced harassment or bullying from an employee, and report it to your HR department, you could very well be one of many victims. Abusers and harassers often rely on power structures to intimidate their victims, and many perpetrators will have patterns or repeat behaviors with multiple victims. Being brave enough to come forward could help other victims feel safe enough to do so as well.

Harassment Lawsuit

After reporting harassment or determining the liability of your company, you can then start building a case for a harassment lawsuit. After you’ve filed a complaint with your company, the next step will be to file with the EEOC for a charge of discrimination. After filing with the EEOC or your local state-run EEOC office, then you must allow the agency the opportunity to investigate your case.

There are multiple outcomes that the EEOC may determine, and the process could take up to 10 months:

  • They may suggest mediation between yourself and the company, and the EEOC will provide an experienced mediator to help suggest a solution. This could result in both parties resolving to agree on a voluntary settlement. This is also typically the fastest resolution, and the EEOC says it could be resolved as soon as 3 months after reporting.
  • The EEOC may investigate your claim and find your experience to be worthy of a lawsuit. If they decide this, they will send you a letter detailing your right to file a lawsuit in court, and you will have 90 days to do so if you decide to pursue. You can also directly request a Notice of Right to Sue from their online portal. There are also extremely rare cases where the EEOC might file the lawsuit on your behalf (this is normally reserved for extreme cases).
  • The EEOC may investigate your claim and be unable to find if a law was violated, but will see merit to your case. In these circumstances, they will also send you a Notice of Right to Sue, and will leave it to the a judge’s discretion to determine a verdict in court if you decide to pursue a lawsuit independently. You will have 90 days to decide if you want to file a lawsuit.
  • The EEOC may investigate your claim and find that the business was not in fault, or that the claim brought to their attention was not legally classified as harassment. If this is the case, they will notify you of their decision and dismiss your charge.

Harassment Lawsuit Payouts

If your company is found liable for discrimination and harassment due to their inability to correct a harasser on their payroll, then you could be on the receiving end of financial compensation due to your experience with the harasser. This compensation — known as “damages” by lawyers — could be a result of a settlement reached between you and the company, a requirement set by the EEOC against the company, or a decision reached by a jury and judge in a courtroom lawsuit.

Although it’s impossible to say how much money you will receive, there are a few different forms of compensation that could come from your case:

  • Back Pay or Front Pay: This term refers to the pay that you could have lost due to being harassed. If this means you missed hours (and thus were unpaid during that time), you could receive pay for those hours that you missed. Or if you were passed over for a wage increase, you could receive that money after the fact. Additionally, if you quit your job due to the harassment, you could be “reinstated” into your position (if it is reasonable to do so). The amount the company owes is often left to the discretion of the judge or mediator presiding over the settlement, and you are encouraged to give a reasonable idea of the wages that you lost as a result of the harassment.
  • Pain and Suffering: These damages are often determined based on the emotional impact the harassment had on you personally. It’s possible that you had to seek out counseling due to the traumatic treatment you received, and pain and suffering damages will help cover the cost of that treatment you sought out.
  • Punitive Damages: This type of damages is a direct punishment to the employer due to them failing to address, correct, or put a stop to the unwanted harassment. Companies that blatantly ignore issues brought to their attention will most likely be charged punitive damages for their poor conduct.

Additionally, it’s important to consider the cost of hiring a lawyer for your harassment case. Many lawyers will offer to work with you on contingency: meaning they will request no money unless you win the case (in which case they would take some of the money you win in the settlement). If the case is lost, they may not take any money at all, but there will often be charges for filing a case with the courts. It all depends on the lawyer, the fees of your local jurisdiction, and what you agree to pay your lawyer.

Sexual Harassment Lawsuit: What to Know

Similar to other cases of harassment, sexual harassment lawsuits can be determined by the EEOC. If your company had you sign a non-disclosure agreement (NDA) or a confidentiality agreement, be conscious of the legal ramifications of filing with the courts. If you have questions or concerns, it is best to consult with a lawyer prior to filing. Keep in mind, as well, that the EEOC offers assistance with lawyers that work within the organization.

However, the EEOC is always an option for sexual harassment victims: even if you signed an NDA or confidentiality agreement. By federal ruling, no company can limit your ability to file with the EEOC, and the EEOC could decide that you have a right to sue, depending on their investigation. If you do received a Notice of Right to Sue letter, you will be able to hire a lawyer and file a lawsuit.

When to File

It is important to note that the EEOC’s Notice of Right to Sue letter has a short shelf life. If you receive the letter, be sure to put in a filing for a lawsuit within 90 days of receiving it.

Additionally, if you are reporting harassment to the EEOC, be sure to do so within 180 days of the last incident.

What You can Expect

Similar to a traditional harassment lawsuit, you may be eligible for financial compensation if you file a lawsuit for sexual harassment. The judge or jury will determine the verdict, but there are multiple forms of payouts (known as damages) that you might receive if the ruling is in your favor.

Additionally, you may be expected to pay some filing fees to the courts, as well as additional attorney fees (depending on your agreement with the lawyer). Many lawyers will agree to work with you on contingency: meaning you will only owe them money if you both win the suit. If you lose the suit, the lawyer might simply take the loss without charging you.

If you have any additional questions concerning the outcome of a sexual harassment lawsuit, or if you have concerns related to a NDA or confidentiality agreement, be sure to contact a harassment lawyer or EEOC field office.

There is never a reason that harassment should be allowed within a workplace. Know your rights, and be aware that you have the ability to fight back against harassment and unwanted treatment in your place of employment.

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