Harassment at Work

Harassment at Work

Last updated: August 2009

What is harassment?

Harassment is a legal term, and it does not refer to your boss or your co-workers just not being nice to you, or not giving you benefits or advantages that you think other employees receive. Harassment occurs when you are subjected to unwelcome comments, actions, jokes, or mistreatment by a supervisor, employer, co-worker, or business customer in the workplace or in connection with your job, that have their basis in your race, your ethnic background, your disability status, your religion, or your age.

Harassment is a form of discrimination in employment. Discrimination is prohibited under federal law by the Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e et seq. (2008). The Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA) also applies in the situation of age related harassment. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) also applies if the harassment is based on your disability. Harassment is also prohibited by Illinois state law under the Illinois Human Rights Act, 775 ILCS 5/1-101 (2008). Some local city and county ordinances also prohibit harassment as a form of discrimination.  

What kind of harassment violates the law?

Harassment that is severe enough to create a “hostile work environment” may be sufficient to bring a legal claim for discrimination against an employer.

What is a hostile work environment?

A “hostile work environment” is when the comments, actions, jokes, or conduct are so commonplace, constant and pervasive so as to make the work environment “hostile” to a reasonable person.

To establish a harassment claim based on a hostile work environment, you will have to be able to prove that:

  • You were subjected to racist or anti-ethnic, anti-religion, anti-age type conduct;
  • The conduct was unwelcomed by you;
  • The conduct was sufficiently severe or commonplace 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 find out if your employer has a written 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. 

Even if there is no written policy, you must still complain to management about the harassment, and you should document the date of your complaint, who you complained to, and what you reported. Make sure you tell management the whole story, even if you find it upsetting. Again, this will be critical to going forward in any legal claim against your employer for harassment.

What else should I do to pursue a harassment claim?

If 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. 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.

Helpful Organizations
The following organizations may be able to help you with

For a list of organizations in your area that may be able to help you, enter your zip code.



We welcome your comments and suggestions

User Survey - Please take a moment to fill out our User Survey to help us to provide better service.

Please do not email legal questions or information about your problem. We will not answer legal questions or provide legal assistance. You can find referrals to legal organizations that may be able to help you by clicking here.