Yes. You have the right under several federal laws to sue your employer when it allows supervisors, managers, coworkers, or customers to continually harass you. Keep in mind that in order to be unlawful, harassment must be based on a protected class like sex, age, race, gender, religion, pregnancy or military status. Each state also has its own statutes that protect people from harassment in the workplace.
Invoking your rights under these laws and statutes typically requires you to show that the harassment rose above normal teasing and banter, creating a hostile work environment. But you may take legal action when the harassment crosses the line into inflicting injuries, making you fear for your safety, or causing you to feel unable to perform your job duties.
Harassment That Creates a Hostile Work Environment Provides Grounds for an Employment Lawsuit
Federal employment laws that prohibit the harassment of employees include
- Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which makes it illegal to mistreat individuals on account of their race, ethnicity, national origin, sex, sexual orientation, or religion;
- The Age Discrimination in Employment Act, which protects workers who are older than 40;
- Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, which deals with sex discrimination at schools and other educational institutions that receive funds from the U.S. government;
- The Pregnancy Discrimination Act, which prohibits unequal treatment of expectant and new mothers;
- The Americans with Disabilities Act, which makes it illegal both to discriminate against people who have physical or mental disabilities and to treat someone as though they have a disability; and
- The Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act, which protects military veterans, members of the National Guard, and military reservists.
Depending on where you live, you may have additional protections against harassment in the workplace. For instance, a growing number of states are adopting natural hairstyle laws and laws that explicitly prohibit discrimination against trans people and people who identify as other than male or female and/or are gender fluid.
As employment attorneys who practice in Cleveland, Ohio, we have advised and represented clients who have experienced harassment in the form of insults, demeaning nicknames, verbal abuse, sabotage, open displays of pornography or other intentionally offensive images, threats of violence, unwanted touching, and physical abuse.
To merit filing a lawsuit, such harassment usually needs to be frequent and severe. In other words, the mistreatment must occur more than once and be serious enough to make the workplace hostile. A single instance of harassment may support a lawsuit if it is physically harmful, such as sexual assault.
No exact definition of “hostile workplace” exists, but the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission uses standards such as “intimidating” and “offensive to reasonable people.” If harassment becomes so severe that you have no choice but to quit your job, you should consider speaking to an employment law attorney about the possibility of filing a lawsuit. We highly recommend that you speak to an attorney before resigning.
You Also Have Legal Protections Against Quid Pro Quo Sexual Harassment
In addition to sexual harassment occurring in the form of a hostile work environment, workplace sexual harassment also exists when there is a quid pro quo demand. If a manager or supervisor demands dates or sexual favors from you in exchange for employment opportunities, you may have grounds for filing a quid pro quo sexual harassment lawsuit.
This second type of harassment is called quid pro quo sexual harassment because the boss offers “this” (for example, a job, promotion or raise) for “that” (specifically, sex). Insisting that an employee agree to such an arrangement is illegal by definition, though a single request for a date that is not conditioned on getting or keeping a job will not support a harassment lawsuit. However, a supervisor or manager who continues pressuring an employee for sexual favors is creating a hostile work environment.
Additionally, no manager or supervisor can retaliate against an employee for turning down a date or sexual advance. Retaliation often comes in the form of firing, demoting, reassigning, or denying raises and benefits to an employee who rejects sexual advances. In a broader sense, retaliation may also occur when an employer mistreats an employee who opposes any unlawful conduct.
Unfortunately, many of the workplace harassment cases we handle in Cleveland also involve claims of retaliation. Managers and supervisors often try to punish employees who report mistreatment and illegal employment practices. Consulting with a lawyer before reporting harassment can potentially shield you from retaliation.