From time to time, prospective clients inquire: “I’m being harassed at work – do I have a legal claim?” The answer depends in large part on the nature of the perceived harassment.
It is well known that sexual harassment – whether based on a hostile work environment or a “quid pro quo” – is unlawful. Likewise, conduct that is intimidating, hostile or offensive to reasonable people and that occurs because of a person’s protected characteristics – race, gender, or disability, for instance – is likewise prohibited. (The law is clear, however, that petty slights and annoyances will not constitute illegal conduct.)
But what about workplace bullying not motivated by discriminatory intent? Prospective clients are often surprised to learn that even hostile, pervasive bullying conduct will typically not give rise to legal claims unless it is based on a person’s protected characteristics or involves some other form of unlawful conduct (e.g., assault, battery, defamation, retaliation for “whistleblower” activities, etc.).
Of course, the fact that harassment is not always legally actionable does not mean employers should turn a blind eye to such conduct. We recommend that clients include carefully drafted anti-harassment policies in employee handbooks, and that they promptly investigate reports of harassment. Promoting a culture of tolerance and respect helps to prevent harassment and, in turn, potential legal exposure.
Questions? Call us at (248) 477-6300.