Is harassment by your employer illegal?

Many employees contact Fett & Fields, P.C. due to harassment they have endured at the hands of their employers. Those employees seek to rectify what they see as the creation of a "hostile work environment."

In my last blog, I indicated that in Michigan, many employees are considered "at-will" employees. "At-will" employment means your employer may terminate your employment for many reasons that may be considered wrong or incorrect as long as those reasons do not violate the law. That rule also applies to harassment, as not all harassment by your employer is illegal despite being rude or mean.

Some important points to remember about harassment and whether it is illegal are:

1. The harassment must be "severe and pervasive," meaning that it must be substantially serious and/or frequent. Minor harassment is not actionable (i.e. not illegal under employment law) and isolated incidents of harassment are most likely not actionable unless extremely severe. For example, petty insults or infrequent statements made in bad taste are not "severe and pervasive," especially when not directed at the complaining employee.

2. The harassment must be based on a protected characteristic, such as race, sex, or disability, or a protected activity, such as reporting or opposing discrimination based on one of those protected characteristics. Another example of protected activity is reporting (or being about to report) a violation (or suspected violation) of the law to a public body under the Whistleblowers' Protection Act.

3. Harassment caused by things such as personal animosity, personality conflicts or mean people is not actionable unless it is also based on protected characteristics or protected activity.

4. The harassment must be unwelcome. For example, if an employee is not offended by or participates in sexual joking engaged in by coworkers, the coworkers' joking is not "unwelcome" and does not create a hostile work environment.

5. Harassment that interferes with or is intended to interfere with an employee's employment is also actionable, as are "intimidating" or "offensive" work environments.

6. Requiring sexual favors for employment, promotion or other employment benefits is sexual harassment and against Michigan and federal law.

Obviously, certain forms of harassment that are not based on protected characteristics or activity may violate laws other than employment laws. A physical assault by your supervisor would certainly violate criminal laws and should be reported to law enforcement.

It is important that employees report harassment by coworkers or supervisors to their employers. Most companies have policies and procedures for reporting harassment. However, reporting harassment can lead to retaliation by the employer even though such retaliation is illegal.

If you are experiencing or have experienced harassment or a hostile work environment, contact Fett & Fields, P.C. today for a free evaluation of your case:

Note: This blog entry is for general informational purposes only and should not be considered legal advice. You should always consult with an attorney before taking or refraining from taking any action in your individual situation.

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