Many disputes where an employer alleges unfair treatment on the part of an employer center on an incident that no one can deny happened, and the dispute is about whether the employer’s actions were unfair. If an employer terminated an employment relationship, refused to renew an employee’s contract, or wrote a negative performance review, the evidence is there for everyone to see. Therefore, it is more challenging to prove that your employer treated you unfairly when the unfair treatment was something the employer said to you verbally or even something the employer did not say. Employment laws treat workplace harassment, also known as a hostile work environment, as a form of employment discrimination. You have the same rights if your employer created a hostile work environment as you would if your employer wrongfully terminated your employment. The Houston hostile work environment lawyers at HKM Employment Attorneys LLP can help you if you face a hostile work environment or other forms of discrimination at your job.
Schoolyard Bullies in the Workplace
You would recognize harassment if you saw it. You have probably been aware of it since you were in elementary school when it was called bullying. Harassment can take many forms, from name-calling and threats or intimidation to the circulation of materials meant to ridicule or insult the victim by referring indirectly to the victim’s characteristics or situation.
As for why people engage in harassment, some philosophers would say that social exclusion and general mean-spiritedness are simply part of human nature. As for why people engage in harassment in the workplace, it is because they think they can get away with it. Sometimes harassment centers on a personal characteristic of the employee, such as the employee’s race, sexual orientation, or non-native English language proficiency. In other cases, the harassment is an attempt to intimidate the employee after they exercise a legal right, such as taking a family leave or filing a worker’s compensation claim. Either way, workplace harassment is against the law.
Employment Discrimination Laws Apply in Cases of Harassment, Too
Employment discrimination is when an employer takes an adverse action against an employee because of a protected characteristic of the employee and not for a justifiable reason, such as misconduct on the part of the employee. The following are examples of adverse actions:
- Refusal to hire
- Denial of a promotion or raise for which the employee is eligible
- Unfairly negative performance review
- Reassigning the employee to a different schedule, work location, or set of duties when the employee did not request this
- Demotion or reduction in pay
- Termination of employment
- Hostile work environment
For all of the adverse actions, there could be a reason that the employer took the action that is not the result of a protected characteristic. For example, the employer may have refused to hire you because another applicant for the same position had more experience in the field. The employer may have refused to give you a raise because the company’s budget did not allow for raises for anyone. A hostile work environment is never acceptable, however; harassing coworkers is inappropriate and unprofessional in all circumstances.
Protected characteristics are stable physical characteristics of the employee or characteristics of the employee’s family background. Examples include skin color, sex, religious beliefs or lack thereof, age, marital status, and country of origin. When harassment or other adverse actions are related to a protected characteristic of the employee, they count as employment discrimination.
Hostile Work Environment as a Form of Employer Retaliation
Employer retaliation is when an employer creates a hostile work environment or takes another adverse action against the employee in response to the employee engaging in a legally protected activity. Protected activities are exercises of the employee’s legal rights which, while they may inconvenience the employer, cannot be used as a justification for taking adverse action against the employee. The following are examples of protected activities:
- Filing a worker’s compensation claim after an accidental injury or a diagnosis of an occupational disease
- Reporting a safety violation in the workplace to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA)
- Requesting an unpaid leave or absence because of the employee’s own health concerns or to provide care for a close family member, pursuant to the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA)
- Reporting illegal activity in the workplace to law enforcement
- Filing a discrimination complaint through the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC)
- Requesting a reasonable accommodation for a disability, pursuant to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)
- Participating into an investigation into violations or misconduct by your employer
When the harassment begins after the employee engages in one of the above protected activities, it counts as employer retaliation, which is against the law. Employers sometimes create a hostile work environment to intimidate employees out of exercising their rights or to pressure them to resign from their positions before a regulatory body or a court of law can order the employer to grant the employee the right to which they are legally entitled.
How to Document Workplace Harassment
The process of filing a claim of discrimination or employer retaliation involves short deadlines. You must report the employer’s unfair treatment to the EEOC within 45 days of its occurrence. Therefore, you should contact an employment lawyer as soon as you know of the harassment. Save any emails or screenshots that show evidence of the harassment. If the harassment is purely verbal, take notes of it on your phone. The harassment may continue after your first meeting with an EEOC counselor, and you should continue to update your notes with records of the ongoing harassment.
Contact HKM Employment Attorneys, LLP About Hostile Work Environment and Workplace Harassment
Hostile work environment is a form of discrimination or employer retaliation. The Houston employment lawyers at HKM Employment Attorneys, LLP can help you if your employer is bullying you because you are trying to stand up for your rights. Contact the employment lawyers at HKM Employment Attorneys LLP in Houston, Texas, to set up a consultation.