Workplace Harassment: Protect Yourself and Your Rights
The workplace should be an environment where all employees feel safe and are free from harassment in all forms. Workplace safety is so critical that Massachusetts law imposes affirmative obligations upon employers to (1) proactively ensure a safe work environment and to (2) take adequate measures in response to all reports of a hostile work environment. Pursuant to this law, vicarious liability is imposed on an employer for the conduct of its employees and an employer is principally liable for failure to adequately respond to and appropriately resolve a reported complaint of a hostile work environment. Massachusetts’ courts have repeatedly ruled that the obligations imposed by workplace safety laws must be interpreted as broadly as necessary to fulfill their purpose. What this means for employees is that if you think your employer is violating workplace safety laws, you should take the below steps to protect yourself and assert your rights.
1. Inform the Harasser that His or Her Comments are Unwelcomed and not Professional
The first step is to stand up to the harasser and inform him or her that their comments and conduct is unwelcome, unprofessional, and offensive. Be sure to couch these replies in no uncertain terms to ensure your message is clear. Avoid the use of qualifiers such as, “can we talk about this later” or “this isn’t the best time.” If the comments are inappropriately complimentary, do not thank them or compliment the speaker in return. Thanking, complimenting, or qualifying your reply may communicate the message that this type of communication is welcomed. If this is done using email or text messaging, create a copy and maintain it.
2. Report the Inappropriate Conduct to a Manager or Human Resources
Let your manager or a member of human resources know right away. Request a meeting to the appropriate person in writing and include the reason you are requesting the meeting. If emailing this request, it is advisable to maintain a copy of this request and the subsequent response. Print the correspondence out. Be cautious when emailing the correspondence to a personal account. The email chain may contain proprietary or confidential information and you may unintentionally misappropriate this information and be subjected to workplace discipline or even legal liability.
3. Maintain a Record of the Meeting with the Manager or Human Resources
It is important to keep written notes of the meeting with your manager or a member of human resources.The response, or lack thereof, will determine whether your employer is responding accordingly or failing to adhere to the obligations imposed by Massachusetts law.Within your written record, it is important to note how much time elapsed between your request for this meeting and its actual occurrence, the date and time of the meeting, who you met with, and also include some general commentary about the substance and tone of the meeting.It is important to inform your manager or member of human resources that you are taking notes relating to the meeting and you expect an adequate and appropriate response in a reasonable time.
4. Follow up with the Manager or Human Resources
After this meeting, allow a reasonable amount of time to pass before following up to ascertain what remedial measures have been taken. Make a written request for a follow up in person meeting and be sure to retain a copy for your own personal records. At this meeting, begin by recalling the substance of the prior meeting and inquire about what response the employer has made regarding the report of a hostile work environment. If you discover no action has since been initiated or you reasonably believe the responsive actions are inadequate, let your employer know then and also communicate this sentiment in writing following the completion of this meeting. Again, retain a copy of your written response for your own personal records
5. Speak to an Attorney
If after the initial and follow up meetings the harassing behavior has continued or the employer has failed to take the appropriate actions necessary to remedy the hostile work environment, it is in your best interest to speak to an attorney. An attorney will suggest clear strategies on how to protect yourself and preserve you rights. A settlement is possible and it also likely an attorney will suggest filing a complaint with the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination. This government agency is charged with the task of preventing and remedying workplace harassment on the basis of gender, sexual orientation, age, religion, and nationality. Moreover, they are authorized and equipped to conduct large scale investigations.
Most importantly, if you feel you are the victim of work workplace harassment, you do not have to subject yourself to it. Do not be afraid to speak up to the harasser. Do not be afraid to put management and human resources on notice of the harassing conduct. Any action taken by your employer in retaliation only entitles you to further compensation. Further, it is important to note that in our office’s successful representation of employees taking legal action against their employer for harassment, we seek absolute confidentiality for our clients. For our clients, this means that we work as zealously as possible to reduce the concern that your experiences of harassment and the initiation of legal action will not be communicated to any future prospective employer.