Harassment at Work

Harassment at Work

Last updated: September 2015

What laws prohibit workplace harassment?

Harassment is a form of discrimination in employment.  Discrimination is illegal under federal law by Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e et seq, The Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA) and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).  Harassment is also illegal under the Illinois Human Rights Act, 775 ILCS 5/1-101.  Some local city and county ordinances also prohibit discrimination as a form of harassment.

What categories of employees are protected from unlawful harassment?

In Illinois, it is illegal if your employer harasses you based on any of the following categories:

  • race
  • color
  • religion
  • sex (including pregnancy)
  • national origin
  • citizenship status
  • ancestry
  • age (over 40)
  • order of protection status
  • martial status
  • physical or mental disability
  • arrest record
  • military status
  • sexual orientation
  • genetic information
  • and unfavorable discharge from military service

The harasser can be in the same protected class as you are.

What kind of harassment violates the law?

There are two types of illegal harassment.  The first is "quid pro quo" or this for that harassment.  Quid pro quo harassment occurs when a term or condition of your employment is tied to your submission to a sexual favor. An example of quid pro quo harassment would be a supervisor demanding you to submit to a sexual favor for a promotion.  This type of harassment is limited to sexual harassment and is generally clearly defined.

The second type of harassment is called "hostile work environment" and it occurs when conduct is sufficiently severe or pervasive enough to change the terms or conditions of employment and create an abusive work environment. The conduct must be subjectively and objectively offensive. That is, you must personally find it offensive and an average reasonable person must also find it offensive. The offensive conduct does not need to be directed at you. Hostile work environment harassment must be more than unpleasantness, childish behavior, horseplay, or flirtation.

Anti-discrimination laws also state that it is illegal to harass an individual in retaliation for filing a charge of discrimination, testifying, or participating in any way in an investigation, proceeding, or lawsuit under the discrimination laws; or opposing employment practices that you reasonably believe discriminate against individuals, in violation of these laws.

How do you prove hostile work environment harassment?

To establish a harassment claim based on a hostile work environment, you must prove that:

  • You were subjected to unlawful conduct based on your status in one of the above-mentioned protected categories;
  • The conduct was unwelcome by you;
  • The conduct was sufficiently severe or frequent at your job that a reasonable person in your position would find your work environment to be hostile or abusive;
  • That your employer knew or should have known about the conduct; and 
  • Your employer did not take reasonable steps to correct the situation or prevent the harassment from recurring.  

Another co-worker at my job calls me racial/ethnic slurs, and makes racist/ethnic jokes about me. Is that harassment?

It may be, depending on how frequent or severe it is. Just one action, such as one joke, one comment, or one incident, is generally not considered to rise to the level of being a harassing work environment. But when the activity becomes repeated, it may be enough for a legal claim of harassment. Even just one action by your harasser, if it is very bad, can alone form the basis of a harassment claim.

If I am suffering harassment at work, what should I do?

First, you must report the harassment to your employer.  Find out if your employer has a harassment policy.  If they do, you must follow the steps it lays out for you for complaining about your harasser.  This is a necessary step for you to take because if you do not use the policy, your employer will not be responsible to you for your harasser's actions.  While you may feel afraid to report your harasser or think it will do no good to report your harasser, you still must do so otherwise your legal claim against your employer will be severely and negatively affected.  The employer's policy must offer multiple ways to report the harassment including bypassing the harasser.

You should document the date of your complaint, who you complained to, and what you reported.  You should also ask for a copy of your complaint.  Make sure you tell management the whole story even if you find it upsetting.  Again, this will be critical in going forward in any legal claim against your employer for harassment.  

You must also cooperate with your employer's reasonable corrective measures.

What else should I do to pursue a harassment claim?

If you  believe you are the victim of harassment, you must file a charge of discrimination with a governmental agency that investigates employment discrimination within 180 days of the negative employment action against you or the conduct that caused the hostile environment. In Illinois, if you are a state or local governmental employee, you should go to the United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). You must go to this agency first to “exhaust your administrative remedies” before you can bring a court lawsuit on a harassment claim. After you file your charge, the EEOC will do some investigation of your claim, and issue a finding of whether there is sufficient evidence to believe that harassment occurred in your situation.

Chicago District Office of EEOC
500 West Madison Street
Suite 2000
Chicago, IL 60661
Phone: (800) 669-4000 
Fax: (312) 869-8220 
TTY: (312) 869-8001

You do not need to have an attorney to go to the EEOC, but you can hire one for that administrative process if you choose to do so.

What else can I do to evaluate my harassment claim?

If you believe you have legal claims against your employer, you should consult with an employment law attorney who can evaluate how strong your claims are, and what they are potentially worth in a monetary sense. An employment law attorney can properly evaluate what happened to you. You might wish to contact the National Employment Lawyers Association (NELA) for a referral to an employment law attorney or the Chicago Bar Association Lawyer Referral Service.

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