Harassment includes any behavior which is:
- Belittling; or
Harassment may also include behavior which is embarrassing, hurtful, or which is intended to undermine an individual, especially if it occurs in a workplace. Workplace harassment may involve numerous parties, including:
- Staff; and
- Other individuals.
Verbal harassment which occurs in the workplace is a serious issue for many employees. Verbal harassment may come from many directions, including an employer or a co-worker.
Verbal harassment may also be referred to as microaggressions. A microaggression is a small comment which seems to be minor but that creates a negative environment for all of the employees, not just the employee who is being targeted by the harassment.
It is important to note that teasing and harassment are not the same behavior. In order to be harassment, the behavior must be a sustained pattern, as opposed to one passing comment.
Every individual has the right to a safe environment in their workplace. Pursuant to the Civil Rights Act, discrimination by an employer which is based on certain protected characteristics is prohinited. These characteristics include:
- National origin;
- Disability, including pregnancy;
- Age, if the employee is over 40;
- Genetic information; or
In many instances, teasing in the workplace often begins based on these characteristics. It may also begin regarding sexual harassment or inappropriate sexual topics.
In every case, this type of verbal harassment is illegal. Employees are permitted to take both administrative and legal measures to combat this type of harassment.
Can an Employee File a Claim for Verbal Harassment?
Yes, an employee can file a claim for verbal harassment. However, verbal harassment may be difficult to prove due to the fact that an individual’s tone of voice is often hard to prove.
Although verbal harassment may be defined as insulting language, it may be challenging to define what constitutes abusive language and what language is less serious. In some cases, a claim of verbal harassment may be added to another claim because, in some cases, verbal harassment can be used to prove an individual’s pattern of behavior when another, more serious charge has occurred.
Is there a Legal Remedy for Verbal Harassment at Work?
Yes, there may be legal remedies available for individuals who are experiencing verbal harassment in their workplace. One difficult aspect of recovering damages for verbal harassment in the workplace is that most employees are considered at-will employees.
At-will employment is a term that is used in employment agreements to describe the employment status of the employee. It means that the employee is hired for an indefinite period of time and that the employer is permitted to terminate the employee at any time without cause, or for any reason.
Additionally, at-will employment means that an employee is permitted to terminate their own employment at any time and for any reason, or for no reason at all. In other words, in at-will employment, neither an employer nor an employee must have a justified reason for terminating the employment relationship.
Any reason may be considered a proper basis for an employee’s termination, including not having a reason. This applies so long as the reason is not illegal, such as discrimination.
One of the main issues regarding at-will employment is that, regardless of which party terminates the employment relationship, the other party is powerless to prevent it from happening. In addition, an at-will employee is subject to the decisions of their employer.
This means that the employer is permitted to change the terms of the individual’s employment without notice and they will not face consequences. For example, an employer is permitted to terminate an at-will employee’s benefits or to reduce their wages without being penalized for those decisions.
Being an at-will employee may make a verbal harassment claim difficult because the employer may claim that they were merely critiquing the performance of the employee.
If, however, the employee, or former employee as they may be, is able to prove they were the victim of a hostile work environment, they may have an easier time obtaining a remedy for verbal harassment.
Remedies for a hostile work environment typically include compensatory damages intended to compensate the employee for lost wages and back pay and benefits to which they are entitled but did not receive as a result of not being able to work. Other common remedies include reinstatement of the employee to their former position and termination of the offending employee.
In addition, in rare cases, an employer may be required to pay punitive damages to an employee. This occurs when the employer intentionally engages in conduct which creates a hostile work environment.
What Constitutes a Hostile Work Environment?
Employees should be able to perform their job duties in a safe and healthy work environment. Many employees, however, suffer from hostile work environments.
These work environments can severely impact their ability to perform their jobs. A hostile work environment exists when any individual in the workplace engages in harassment which makes it impossible for another employee or other employees to perform their job duties.
Hostile work environment harassment typically includes unwelcome comments or conduct that is based upon the legally protected characteristics listed above and interferes with the employee’s work performance.
A hostile work environment can be created by numerous parties, including:
- Repeat clients;
- Contractors; or
- Other employment staff who have significant contact with the employee.
It is important to note that not each and every isolated annoyance, petty slight, or incident, will raise to the level of an illegal hostile work environment.
It is important to note that a hostile work environment can be present in different ways, depending on the workplace environment and what constitutes a hostile work environment may vary from workplace to workplace. It may include sexual remarks or harassment that create an environment of fear and intimidation.
In most cases, the employee will be required to first report the issue to the Human Resources department of their employer. If that does not resolve the problem, they can file a claim with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).
The EEOC assists with the resolution of issues involving workplace discrimination, including hostile work environments. The EEOC will conduct an investigation into the allegations and issue remedies for the violations. If, however, the EEOC is unable to remedy the issue, they may provide the claimant with a Right to Sue letter and the individual can file a civil lawsuit.
If an employee finds themself in a situation where they are subjected to offensive and unwelcome conduct which has affected the terms and conditions of their employment, it may be possible for them to sue their employer for harassment and a hostile work environment.
Do I Need a Lawyer?
It is essential to have the assistance of an workplace harassment lawyer for any verbal harassment issues you may be experiencing in your workplace. It is important to consult with an attorney as soon as possible in order to gather evidence and begin building a case.
Your lawyer can review your situation, determine if you have a claim for verbal harassment, and represent you if you are required to appear before a government agency or in court. Because verbal harassment is difficult to prove, it is important to have an attorney on your case who will know the best way to present your case.