Sexual Harassment

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Experiencing Workplace Harassment? How To Write A Harassment Complaint Letter That Gets Results

In this blog we will tackle how to write a workplace harassment complaint letter. Life and "adulting" are hard enough to have to also put up with harassment at one's place of work! And yet, inappropriate behaviors -- especially of the sexual harassment variety -- continue to happen in the workplace, making it challenging and unsafe for professionals to do their jobs.

In the US, there exist federal laws as well as state laws against offensive, aggressive and otherwise problematic behaviors leading to a hostile atmosphere at the workplace. The employer's human resources department is required to take certain measures to prevent such occurrences from happening in the first place -- and the employees have legal rights in fighting them if they do happen.

Read on to see what kinds of inappropriate behavior qualify as "workplace harassment" -- and learn how to write a formal grievance letter to put a stop to unlawful workplace harassment if it happens to you.

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Types Of Workplace Harassment Protected By Law

While many "iffy" behaviors exist at the workplace, only certain types are considered an unacceptable "harassing behavior" in the eyes of the law.

Federal Laws Against Workplace Harassment

On the federal level, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Equal Pay Act of 1963, The Age Discrimination In Employment Act of 1967 (ADEA), the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA) and the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009 are all laws that protect employees against instances of "employment discrimination" -- an umbrella rubric that encompasses a variety of infringements on employee rights, from sexual harassment to unfair pay.

Compliance with federal workplace harassment laws is enforced by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).

Ultimate Guide To State And Local Harassment Prevention Training Requirements

Download the guide outlining all the state and local laws around sexual harassment prevention training requirements.

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EEOC Limitations

The EEOC only rules over companies with 15+ employees: smaller companies are not under their jurisdiction.

The statute of limitations for an EEOC complaint is 180 days: your complaint time window expires after that.

State Laws Against Workplace / Sexual Harassment

Some U.S. states have robust (and growing) state laws against workplace discrimination, coupled with preemptive training requirements and watchdog agencies enforcing them.

Other U.S. states have minimal or no additional state-level laws protecting employees from such things.

The states with strong anti-discrimination laws sometimes offer longer statutes of limitations on how long an employee has to file a formal complaint; in some states, the antidiscrimination laws apply to businesses with fewer than 15 employees.

Some of those states also have wider definitions of "discrimination" than on the federal level, being inclusive of additional "protective class" traits such as marital status and body weight.

Workplace Harassment Defined

According to the EEOC, "harassment" is defined as unwelcome conduct (that, in legal terms, alters the terms and conditions of your employment contract) based on:

  • race/color
  • religion
  • sex (including sexual orientation, gender identity, or pregnancy)
  • national origin
  • older age (40+)
  • disability
  • genetic information (dna, family medical history, etc)

The EEOC states that harassment is unlawful when:

  • Having to endure the offensive behavior becomes an inescapable "condition of continued employment"
  • The problematic conduct is so severe or pervasive that it creates a work environment that a reasonable person would perceive as hostile, abusive, or otherwise intimidating.

"Offensive conduct" can take various forms of physical and verbal abuse including:

  • offensive jokes
  • racial slurs and other instances of bigoted epithets and name calling
  • physical assaults/threats
  • intimidation/ridicule/mockery
  • insults/putdowns/derogatory remarks
  • offensive/suggestive objects/images
  • interference with work performance

Harassment can manifest in a variety of scenarios and the harasser can be of any gender: the victim's superior, a co-worker, an agent of the employer, or a nonemployee altogether. If the harassing behavior is taking place on the company premises, even if the harasser is just a customer, the employer is responsible and liable for handling the incident appropriately.

The employer is legally prohibited from retaliating in any way against an employee making a complaint with the human resources or state or federal agency.

Here are some examples of workplace harassment scenarios.

What Behavior Does Not Qualify As "Workplace Harassment" Under Federal Laws?

The EEOC states that "petty slights, annoyances, and isolated incidents (unless extremely serious) will not rise to the level of illegality". For example, suppose one co-worker delights in peppering their conversation with insufferably cheesy but inoffensive puns -- and this makes another colleague's head nearly explode from irritation: this is not enough to qualify for a workplace harassment case! The conduct must be severely or pervasively hostile, intimidating or offensive to a reasonably objective person.

Lodging An Official Complaint About Workplace Harassment

If you find yourself in the unfortunate situation of being made so mentally or physically uncomfortable at your place of work that it gets in the way of your ability to do your job -- you have a legal right and path to complain and put an end to the hostile environment. After you file a complaint, HR will handle the harassment claim.

Complaint Progression

Your first line of defense is to write a formal complaint letter to your human resources department, union representative or, if those are not available, to your line manager/immediate supervisor.

If you prefer to complain outside of the company -- or if your employer fails to address your internal complaint in a satisfactory and timely manner (or at all) -- you may file an official complaint with your state authority in charge of enforcing workplace discrimination laws (for example, in California, you would write a complaint letter to the Department of Fair Employment And Housing (DFEH)).

You may also file a "Charge of Discrimination" with the EEOC. If they determine your complaint to be valid in accordance with their criteria and judgement, the agency will take up the case and determine the appropriate sanctions against the employer or even help the employee take the employer to court, if the situation is particularly unjust.

It's important to keep in mind that there are statutes of limitations on how long a victim has to file a grievance, so early action is recommended. Plus, writing the complaint letter ASAP ensures that you can remember the relevant incidents in more detail than if you had waited longer.

Organizing Information And Evidence For Writing A Complaint Letter

If you decide you have cause to formally complain about workplace harassment, here's how to take necessary action.

Review The Employee Handbook

The employee handbook provided by your human resources department ought to have company-specific instructions for reporting your allegations. Reading up on the company's policy will also inform you on proper terminology to utilize in your letter. Contact the HR department directly if the harassment policies are not clear from the guide.

Gather Witness Statements

Obtain a witness statement from each witness to the inappropriate workplace behavior you are reporting. Statements from witnesses must contain names, titles and work locations of victims, witnesses, and offending parties.

Keep Records And Tangible Evidence Of The Harassing Behavior(s)

Collect all the emails, voicemails, physical notes, and any other incriminating records of the offensive instances, ready to be presented as evidence. (Whether or not you have a legal right to submit audio recordings of phone conversations depends on whether you live in a "one-party consent" or a "two-party consent" state.)

Now, you are ready to write your complaint letter.

What To Include In Your Workplace Harassment Complaint Letter

Find out the human resources professional's name and address the letter to this person with a cordial greeting, using their formal title.

The body of the letter should go along the following lines:

  • In the first paragraph, introduce yourself and state your grievance about the problematic recent events.
  • In the following body of text (typically 2-3 paragraphs) recount each incident of workplace harassment exactly as you remember it (even if profane language was involved). In doing so, provide detailed, chronologically organized narrative with a date, time, and detailed description of when the harassment started, and the same for each subsequent event (did the harassment take form of derogatory remarks, offensive jokes, physical threats or assaults, inappropriate sexual suggestions, false rumors, etc?)
  • Reference any tangible evidence you have to back up your claims; name any witnesses that can corroborate your complaint.
  • Describe (in rational language) how the repeated instances of harassment impacted you and your working environment negatively.
  • In the concluding paragraph, reassert your call for an investigation and thank the human resources specialist for their time and attention.
  • Sign your name with a cordial sign-off, followed by job title and department name in the company, and you are technically done.

The following complaint letter writing tips will help you refine your letter into an effective message to be taken seriously and acted on swiftly.

  • Be Informative But Brief. Include all the relevant details of each incident, but keep the letter short and to the point. Stick only to the known facts as opposed to assumptions/guesses.
  • Remain Courteous. As tempting as it is to pack your letter with sarcasm, offensive language or even threats, don't give in to this impulse (the human resources person reading the letter is not the object of your scorn anyway!)
  • Be Professional. Nothing short of formal business style is appropriate for the format and tone of this complaint letter. Conversely, a carelessly-worded/sloppily-executed letter could weaken your credibility if a proper investigation is launched.

The Final Step

All that remains to do now is to mail your complaint letter to your human resources department person or immediate supervisor, preferably by registered mail with proof of receipt.

Make sure to make enough copies, in case you need to forward the letter to other parties (individually signed) and, of course, to keep for your personal records.

Prevention Is The Most Effective Tool In Fighting Workplace Harassment

No professional should have to put up with workplace harassment. It's personally traumatic, socially disruptive, and bad for the productivity and reputation of the company.

Even if one's state does not require sexual harassment or diversity training, when problematic workplace scenarios creep up, the employer is still legally liable on the federal level for failing to prevent/stop these offenses.

EasyLlama's company-wide harassment training programs help nip potential workplace inappropriateness in the bud before it has a chance to rear its ugly head and sabotage the wellness of the employees and the enterprise. Make its marvelous user-friendly technology the compliance e-training solution for your business!

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