Dealing With Workplace Harassment

How to Deal With Harassment at Work

Closeup of a sad woman being stared at by two coworkers at a table behind her
mediaphotos / E+ / Getty Images

Many workers in the legal industry experience workplace harassment—demeaning, abusive, or authoritarian behavior perpetuated by coworkers or even employers. Yet studies show that only one in 10 victims of workplace harassment report it (and just 17% stand up to the bully themselves). 

Employees are far less productive in the workplace when they don't take action against harassment issues. Several strategies offered by workplace experts and employment attorneys can help you deal with workplace harassment and bullying behavior.

Let the Bully Know the Behavior is Unwelcome

Christina Stovall, Director of Human Resource Service Center for the HR outsourcing company Odyssey OneSource, has this to say:

"A bullied target can first try to address the behavior with the bully directly, particularly if it's a more subtle form of bullying (i.e., explaining that snide or sarcastic comments are not appropriate, not professional and not appreciated). If the bullying is of a more serious nature or if the target has attempted to resolve the issue but to no avail or if the bullying has gotten worse, then it's time to tell someone else about it."

At a minimum, victims of bullying or abusive behavior should tell the bully that the behavior is inappropriate and unwelcome, according to Josh Van Kampen, Esq., an employment attorney in Charlotte, North Carolina.

Assuming it's emotionally safe, invite the person to lunch to discuss the issue and explore ways to be more productive together, suggests Dr. Robyn Odegaard, owner of a speaking/consulting company and founder of the Stop The Drama! Campaign.

Report the Misconduct

Victims of workplace harassment should immediately report the misconduct to their supervisors and to human resources, advises attorney Angela J. Reddock, National Workplace Expert and managing partner of the Reddock Law Group, an employment and labor law firm in Los Angeles, California:

"Employees should not be left to handle such issues on their own. They should obtain the support of trained professionals and ensure they have the support and backing of the company in dealing with such issues."

Van Kampen also notes that although victims have the option of reporting the behavior to human resources, such an action may not always prove fruitful.

"Due to gaps in the legal protections in the bullying setting, they may be unprotected from retaliation for reporting the bullying behavior. If the bully is your boss, your recourse is often limited."

"Like any abusive relationship, there's an opportunity cost for pulling the trigger: fear of being fired, retaliation, or "reputational" fallout," says Roy Cohen, career coach and author of The Wall Street Professional's Survival Guide.

"Even when the HR department is consulted, the victim may, unfortunately, bear far too much of the burden when this process involves a highly-placed manager or a manager who is a big contributor to the bottom line," Cohen warns. "These are the clients I often see in my practice and they tend to be either paralyzed with fear or desperate to exit the situation."

Document the Behavior

Joseph Cilona, a Manhattan-based licensed clinical psychologist, business and personal coach, author, and nationally recognized psychology expert, advises bully victims to keep a record of the behavior, retaining a copy for themselves and providing a copy to their superiors, their HR department, and any other relevant colleagues.

"Always create a written record describing the appropriate behavior, the date, time and place it occurred, and who else was present. Should things escalate, or official or legal consequences arise, written documentation will be the most important thing you can have to protect yourself and your job. If it's not documented, it might as well not have happened."

Van Kampen agrees:

"The victim is wise to assemble proof that the bullying behavior has occurred. For example, some states like North Carolina permit a party to a conversation to tape record a conversation with another party without notifying the other party that it's being recorded. The existence of such evidence can force an employer to take effective remedial action in response to a bullying position than it might otherwise. In 'he said, she said' scenarios, employers invariably fail to take action against the harasser."

Consult Employer Policies

Determine if there's an official policy regarding harassment. It should be included in your company's employee manual if it has one. Virtually all medium to large businesses have harassment policies that can potentially capture bullying behavior.

"The topic is receiving a great deal of attention—and rightly so—and the awareness of a potentially hostile situation will hopefully be taken seriously," Cohen notes.

"Unfortunately, as many sexual harassment victims can attest, these complaint processes are far from effective fixes in many harassment scenarios. Employees exercising their rights under such policies can sometimes be targeted for retaliation," Van Kampen warns.

Unfortunately for the targets of bullying, they might not be protected for reporting the bullying behavior unless the behavior constitutes unlawful harassment under civil rights employment laws like Title VII, the Americans with Disabilities Act, or the Age Discrimination in Employment Act.

Employment laws probably don't protect the victim from being retaliated against by the employer if the bully has targeted the victim but their motivation isn't based on the victim's race, gender, disability, age, or other protected category.

Find an Ally

Large companies often have an ombudsman—an individual charged with investigating and resolving these sorts of matters, Cohen says.

The HR department typically represents the company's interests, at least until a matter is proven to be harmful, which is often too late, so the ombudsman might offer a more impartial forum for resolving these complaints.

Seek Medical Attention

Victims of bullying should also obtain medical attention through employee assistance programs if they're offered by the employer, or through their primary care physician. Van Kampen advises:

"In the absence of a medical record showing that emotional damage was suffered, a court or jury will be reluctant to award significant damages even if the bullying behavior is found to be unlawful."

Research the Bully

Cohen suggests performing your own background check on the bully. "The internet offers vast potential for researching history and process. It also provides almost complete anonymity. You might be able to determine if the individual who is bullying you has done this before and how it has been treated," he states.