A hostile work environment can be a complex situation to navigate — and you shouldn't have to feel like you're alone in facing discrimination and/or harassment. So, what can you do about it? What rights do you have? I spoke to Alex Umansky, a Labor and Employment lawyer from New York, who shared 10 tips for navigating such situations. Here's what he had to say.
What makes an environment hostile
A hostile work environment is a form of discrimination and occurs when an employee is subjected to harassment based on a protected trait such as one’s race, color, religion, sex, pregnancy, national origin, age, disability, sexual orientation or genetic information.
What the law sees as a hostile work environment
This workplace harassment becomes illegal where the employee is able to demonstrate that the workplace was permeated with discriminatory harassment that is so severe or pervasive as to alter the conditions of the employee’s work environment.
What to do to address a hostile work environment
A hostile work environment can at best be uncomfortable and at worst feel unbearable. If you feel that you are being subjected to a hostile work environment, you should take the following steps.
1. Object to the harassment directly to the harasser.
The harasser may not be aware that what he or she is doing is wrong. Tell the harasser directly that you are offended and uncomfortable by the discriminatory harassment and politely ask them to immediately stop. Don’t make the same mistake as the harasser and say something that you will later regret. Act professional.
2. Document all the harassment to which you’ve been subjected.
Write down all the specific discriminatory comments that you have witnessed, including the date and time those comments were made. It's important to have this documentation in case you need to proceed any further with your case or file a complaint — you'll need to have evidence.
3. Print copies of all harassing emails and text messages.
Make sure you also print all discriminatory emails and text messages so you don’t lose them in the event your phone dies or you lose it. Again, you may need this important documentation as evidence later on.
4. Depending on the state you work in, try to record the harassment with your phone or recording device.
The most important question in the recording context is whether you must get consent from one or all of the parties to a conversation before recording it. Many state statutes, including New York, permit recording if one party (including you) to the conversation consents (one-party consent). Other states require that all parties to the conversation consent. If you work in a one-party consent state, make sure you record as much of the harassment as possible. It is frequently your word against the harasser’s, so you want to accumulate as much objective evidence as you can. Remember, the harasser will deny it.
5. Bring your notes, emails, texts, and recordings home with you.
Don’t keep your evidence on your work computer or in your work desk, as your employer will have access to all of it (and legally so). Instead, keep it in the privacy of your own home where only you or people you trust will be able to access it.
6. Talk to coworkers to see if anyone else has experienced similar harassment.
If you are being harassed, it is likely that others were or still are being subjected to similar harassment. Talk to them to see if they would be interested in complaining with you. The more people that are telling the same story, the more believable the story is.
7. Research your employer’s complaint procedure and complain about the harassment pursuant to that procedure.
You have to give your employer a chance to fix the situation and put an end to the illegal harassment. Make sure you follow your employer’s complaint procedure, if there is one, and report the harassment to the correct person. It is always best to put your complaint in writing. If you’ve only complained verbally, make sure you follow up in writing confirming the fact that you complained and reiterating the subject of that verbal complaint. Furthermore, provide the person to whom you’re complaining with copies of all the evidence you’ve accumulated. Remember, the employer doesn’t have to fire the harasser or inform you of the results of any investigation. They only have to make the harassment stop.
8. Continue to complain if the harassment continues.
If the harasser continues to harass you after you’ve complained, don’t be afraid to complain again. In fact, it is prudent to complain in writing each and every time you are subjected to discriminatory harassment. Again, this will help build the case against your harasser should your employer not resolve the issue satisfactorily.
9. Watch out for any retaliation.
Keep in mind that it is also illegal for an employer to retaliate against an employee who complains of discriminatory harassment and/or raises their rights under anti-discrimination laws. If the harasser or anyone else retaliates against you in any way whatsoever, immediately complain about the retaliation in the same manner as you complained of the discriminatory harassment. Depending on the state in which you work (see section 4 above), you should record each and every complaint you make to upper management and/or the employer’s human resources department.
10. Meet with an attorney.
If you haven't been able to resolve the matter internally, it may be time to contact a reputable employment discrimination attorney to explore all of your legal rights. You may, for example, want to proceed with a lawsuit against your employer. An attorney can advise you on the viability of your case, what evidence you will need and other actions to take to resolve the matter to your satisfaction.
Alex Umansky, Esq. is a Partner at Law Office of Yuriy Moshes, P.C. He is certified to practice law in NY and NJ as well as on federal level. Alex is specialized in Labor and Employment, Discrimination and Sexual Harassment. For more info: http://mosheslaw.com/
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