What To Do About Workplace Harassment

Harassment by a supervisor or co-worker can create stressful and unpleasant working conditions. Many employees who face workplace harassment don’t know where to turn, what their next steps should be, or what their possible legal remedies are. This blog post will discuss what workplace harassment means under Louisiana law, and how employees (and companies) should respond to instances of on-the-job harassment.

What Is Harassment?

The dictionary definition of harass is “to annoy persistently,”  but the legal definition is far narrower. To be unlawful, harassment requires conduct that is so severe and pervasive that no reasonable employee could be expected to bear it. This is known as a hostile work environment.  Petty slights or occasional unpleasant comments are not considered harassment — courts often say that the law does not impose a civility code in the workplace.

The most well-known workplace harassment is unwelcome sexual touching.  But harassment is not always physical. Verbal or written comments alone may be harassing if they are extreme, or frequently repeated. Examples of verbal harassment could be off-color or insulting jokes, commenting on an employee’s physical attributes, or showing sexually suggestive pictures or cartoons.  Even repeatedly asking an employee out on a date, after several denials, can be harassing if it happens often enough.

What Are Protected Characteristics?

Workplace harassment only violates the law if it is based on a protected characteristic – race, sex, national origin, religion, age, disability, or pregnancy. (In New Orleans, sexual orientation is also a protected characteristic, but this is not the law elsewhere in Louisiana). If the harassment is not based on one of those characteristics, it is not against the law, no matter how severe or unpleasant it may be. A supervisor who is equally unpleasant and demanding to everyone is not violating the law. The law only forbids a supervisor from singling out individuals from one group, such as women, or African-Americans, or older workers, while treating others better.

It is not illegal for a supervisor mistreats an employee for wholly personal reasons, not related to the employee’s race, sex, or other protected characteristic. This is counterintuitive and often difficult for employees to understand. However, personal vendettas are not against the law unless they are motivated by some other prejudice.

What Steps Should I Take If I Am Being Harassed?

If you are being harassed at work, there are two things you should do: document and report.

First, you should document all instances of harassment. It is much easier to prove harassment if you can point to detailed records of specific incidents. If someone sends a harassing email, print it out. If someone makes a harassing comment, write a note saying when the incident occurred, what was said, and the names of any witnesses. Reporting that “my supervisor harassed me all the time” or “he said all kinds of insulting things” is far less convincing than reporting that “On November 15th, right after lunch, my supervisor called me a VC because he knows I am Vietnamese. This is the third time he’s made this kind of comment. Alice Smith and Bob Williams were there and heard it.”

You should also report the harassment to the company. Read your employee handbook or policies to see whether there is a procedure for reporting harassment. If so follow it to the letter, in writing if possible.  Again, it is important to be as specific as possible, and to cooperate with the company’s investigation.  If there is no formal policy, report it to your supervisor or to HR. Not following your company’s processes or procedures can cause you to waive your legal rights. It is also important not to wait too long. Courts sometimes say (rightly or wrongly) that if an employee waited a long time to report harassment, it must not have been that bad.

No one should have to face a work environment that is racist, sexist, or belitting. If you are being harassed at the job based on a protected characteristic, or would like assistance in drafting legally compliant policies regarding workplace harassment, call me at (504) 267-0777 or email today.