My boss or co-worker is harassing me at work. What can I do about it?

We receive many calls each month from people complaining about the harassment they are receiving from their bosses or co-workers and wanting to do something about it in court.

Whether such harassment comes from management representatives or co-workers, it remains that, under federal and state law, the only forms of harassment that are actionable in court are acts directed at an individual because of his or her race, color, sex (gender), religion, or age or because of his or her involvement in unionizing activities or helping members of a union with protecting or enforcing their rights under union contracts.

General unspecific acts of harassment—while offensive, annoying, or downright distracting—unfortunately do not constitute the sort of conduct for which the law will provide a remedy. The only exceptions to this general principle are found in the context of rights guaranteed by a union contract or to government employees by federal or state statutes or regulations or under principles of law prohibiting harassment on the basis of one’s race, color, sex (gender), religion, or age.

What types of harassment on the job can I sue for?

If you are being harassed at work because of your race, color, sex (gender), religion, or age, you may have a claim under federal or state law for unlawful harassment in the employment setting. Other general harassment on the job customarily cannot serve as the basis of a lawsuit unless coupled with some other unlawful conduct.

Because sexual harassment and harassment on the basis of one’s race are by far the most litigated forms of harassment, I have decided to include in this FAQ details on only these two types of claims. If you believe you may be the victim of harassment in the work setting on the basis of your color, religion, or age, contact my office for an appointment to discuss your individual circumstances.

Sexual harassment and racial harassment are serious problems. The victimized employee experiences mental anguish, emotional distress, loss of productivity, diminished income, and the pain of living with the stigma of being isolated or ignored by co-workers who cannot understand why the victimized employee “couldn’t take a joke,” “wouldn’t play along,” or would report the unlawful conduct to the company’s management in the first place.

Sexual harassment is considered to be a form of sex discrimination under both federal law and the law of the State of Ohio. Harassment on the basis of one’s race is considered under federal and state law either to be a form of race discrimination or to be a specific type of unlawful discrimination under statutes tracing their roots back to the end of the Civil War and the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s.

Racial harassment generally results from the conduct by an employer or any of its management employees that has the purpose or effect of unreasonably interfering with an employee’s performance on the job or creating (or allowing) a work environment that is intimidating, hostile, or offensive to the ordinary sensibilities of an individual of the same race as the victimized employee.

The same standards are used in some types of sexual harassment claims.

In addition, sexual harassment includes unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature where the victimized employee’s submission to such conduct expressly or implicitly becomes a term or condition of employment or the victimized employee’s submitting to or rejecting such conduct becomes a factor used in making employment decisions affecting the employee.

Under federal law, employers are liable for acts of sexual or racial harassment where they know of the conduct and do not stop it, act with reckless disregard about the conduct so as to condone it, or fail to take measures that reasonably would be expected to prevent a recurrence of the offensive conduct.

This is why more and more employers are adopting sensitivity or tolerance training programs or diversity awareness seminars and requiring their employees to participate in those initiatives.

Under Ohio law, both employers and the offending employees involved can be held liable for acts of sexual or racial harassment. But not all acts of harassment are actionable under the law.

For example, unless the harassment was at the hands of the victimized employee’s supervisor and some tangible employment action can be tied to the supervisor’s relationship with that employee, an employer may defend against an employee’s claim of harassment by showing that it exercised reasonable care to prevent and correct alleged acts of harassment and that the offending employee unreasonably failed to take advantage of preventive or corrective opportunities or otherwise failed to avoid conduct not expressly or implicitly condoned by the employer.