Harassment can manifest in many forms. In the workplace, sexual harassment is often the most common type and may range from offensive sexual comments to unwanted touching or requests for sexual favors. But what if this or other harassing behaviors take place outside the workplace or working hours? In today’s work-from-home environment, this question has never been more important.
Harassment and Discrimination Laws: The Basics
Key federal laws, such as Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, aim to protect employees from workplace sexual harassment. Title VII and other similar laws offer a civil course of action against employers for a range of discriminatory conduct.
In the context of Missouri, harassment laws function in harmony with federal regulations. For instance, the Missouri Human Rights Act prohibits discrimination based on race, color, national origin, sex, disability, and familial status.
Sexual Harassment: Beyond Workplace Harassment
While harassment cases typically begin within the confines of the office or during work hours, the reality of sexual harassment outside of the workplace is far too common. Employers can find themselves liable for employee harassment that happens outside of traditional working hours or away from the work site, raising complex legal questions.
The principal issue is whether the harassment has a connection to the employment relationship or workplace. This nexus can arise from various situations.
For example, inappropriate behavior at work-related events such as business trips, charity events, team-building activities, and holiday parties may all qualify as actionable workplace sexual harassment. Even in off-site instances, when such behavior occurs in connection with work-related activities, employers may be held liable under the law.
More Nebulous Workplace Sexual Harassment Cases
In cases where the link between the inappropriate behavior and the workplace is more tenuous, determining liability becomes challenging. It’s important to remember that the employer’s control over off-site behavior is limited. However, should an incident of harassment occur outside the workplace, and an employee files a complaint as per the company policy, the employer is expected to respond.
Take, for example, an incident where a manager engages in offensive conduct or makes unwelcome sexual advances via private text messages – not over company chat or using company phones – and does so during non-working hours.
Even if this behavior occurs outside the office, it’s still associated with the employment relationship. As such, it can contribute to a hostile work environment and form the basis for a sexual harassment claim.
Harassment Beyond Work Sites and Working Hours
Can sexual harassment happen in the digital sphere, beyond the physical workspace? The advent of technology and digital communication platforms has blurred the lines between work and personal life. Sexual harassment outside your job site may come through text messages or inappropriate photos shared online, and it might not be happening within an office building or during work hours. These actions still contribute to a hostile work environment. The law acknowledges that sexual harassment outside the workplace is an issue, and such incidents can be the basis for a valid claim.
In addition, harassment doesn’t stop at business trips or holiday parties. As long as the unwanted sexual advances have some nexus to the employment relationship, they may be considered sexual harassment under the law.
In this sense, the geographic location and the time of occurrence aren’t the defining factors for a sexual harassment claim. Instead, the employment relationship and the impact of such behavior on the employee’s work environment are critical considerations in harassment claims.
The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and Missouri Commission on Human Rights
The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) serves as the federal entity responsible for enforcing laws against workplace harassment, making it a crucial player in addressing such issues. When an employee believes they’ve been sexually harassed, either by a supervisor, a co-worker, or a client, they can file a complaint with the EEOC.
The EEOC scrutinizes both the context and nature of the incidents. These inquiries extend beyond on-site incidents and include situations where sexual harassment claims are for incidents outside the workplace. Before you can file a lawsuit under federal law, you generally need to have filed a complaint with the EEOC.
For issues that fall within Missouri law, the Missouri Commission on Human Rights (MCHR) is the appropriate body to file a claim with. The MCHR enforces the Missouri Human Rights Act, which prohibits discrimination and harassment in employment.
Employers bear significant responsibility in preventing and addressing sexual harassment, irrespective of where it occurs. The creation of a company policy against workplace harassment, including clear procedures for reporting and investigating complaints, is essential. Furthermore, employers must respond promptly and appropriately to harassment claims against their employees, whether the offending behavior occurs on site or off site.
Regular training on these policies helps foster an environment free of harassment. This training should include educating employees and managers about the various forms of sexual harassment, such as quid pro quo, and providing guidance on what to do if they experience or witness this type of behavior. Importantly, training should clarify that sexual harassment laws cover incidents happening outside of the workplace and during non-working hours.
Racial and Gender-Based Harassment
Sexual harassment is just one form of workplace harassment, though it is often the most common. The spectrum of harassment extends to other forms of discriminatory behavior based on one’s race, gender identity, sexual orientation, or national origin. Inappropriate comments, a racial slur, or offensive conduct based on one’s race or national origin can all lead to a hostile environment for an employee.
What Steps Should I Take If I’m Being Harassed?
The first step if you believe you are being sexually harassed should always be to communicate your discomfort to the person engaging in the behavior, if you feel safe to do so. Clearly expressing your objection to their actions might deter the behavior in the future.
Documenting each incident in detail is also crucial. This includes the date, time, location, individuals involved, and what exactly transpired. If there were any witnesses to the incident or any electronic evidence like emails or a text message, those should be recorded as well.
If the harassment continues, you should report it to your supervisor or manager. If they are the ones engaging in the harassment, take your complaint to their superior or the human resources department. Be sure to follow your company’s policies for reporting harassment. If your employer lacks a clear policy, the person at the highest level of management is typically the appropriate person to contact.
Filing a Complaint as an Employee
If your employer fails to resolve the issue or if the harassment continues, it may be necessary to file a claim with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) or with the Missouri Commission on Human Rights.
Filing a Sexual Harassment Lawsuit Against an Employer or Supervisor
Filing a lawsuit should be considered after all the aforementioned steps have been taken. It’s crucial to consult with an experienced attorney before deciding to sue your employer or the individual who has harassed you. They can guide you on the complexities of employment law and the feasibility of your case.
Don’t hesitate to reach out to Holman Schiavone, LLC at 816-399-5149 if you believe you have been a victim of workplace harassment. Our legal team can offer a free consultation to help you understand your rights and the best course of action to take. Let us be your advocates and help you seek justice.