What Constitutes Workplace Harassment?

The question of workplace harassment is a question I often hear. It’s also one of the most difficult to answer. It’s not a question of knowing or not knowing what it is. Rather, the meaning of the word is different from its legal definition.

Oftentimes, when I get a call about workplace harassment, the person will say that he or she is harassed on a daily basis at work, which is causing them extreme emotional distress. The caller can’t take it anymore. She wants to quit, but needs the job. She feels like she’s stuck, and doesn’t know where else to go.

Big OfficeI ask the caller to discuss the situation and tell me about their work situation. She — or sometimes he — will tell me about how the job is unbearable, her boss is insane, and a complete nightmare to work with! The boss screams and yells at my caller, calling her stupid, or otherwise insulting her. She is asked to work weekends and is contacted at all hours to take care of some situation or other.

Though this situation may be harassment, it is also — sadly — completely legal. An employer is allowed to yell and cuss at you. They can be rude and insensitive. It is only considered illegal harassment if the harassment is related to age, race, gender, disability, national origin, religion or sexual harassment. Basically, if they call you names or make inappropriate jokes about one of those issues, it’s illegal. If they’re just mean and insensitive, it’s not.

Years ago, when I was younger, I worked at a law firm where many lawyers would regularly yell and scream at the secretaries. The secretaries were constantly crying, and we had a lot of turnover within their ranks. Every week brought a new face because they would quit due to the poor treatment. Needless to say, I don’t work at that law firm anymore.

It comes down to this: having a jerk for a boss is not illegal. He or she can be rude, and it’s not against the law. But if their harassment becomes an issue of age, race, gender, disability, national origin, religion, or sexual harassment — the “Big 7″ — then it is illegal, and you have grounds for a workplace harassment lawsuit.

If you’re experiencing workplace harassment at your job, and feel a legal response is your only option, please contact the Cassis Law Office at (502) 736-8100.

Photo credit: Phil Whitehouse (Flickr, Creative Commons)