Understanding Your Rights and Responsibilities in Workplace Harassment

Whether or not harassment will ever occur in your workplace or even in a situation where you are involved, it is best to understand what rights and responsibilities you have. By law, there are protections in place for all members of the workforce. Likewise, there are certain responsibilities that are also in place that all members of the workplace have and are expected to act upon. Understanding what those rights and responsibilities are and how they apply can help in preventing, identifying, and addressing workplace harassment.

  What Rights Do Employees Have?

By federal law, employees are entitled to certain rights as members of the workforce. There is no limitations in place for those rights based on things like occupation, industry, gender, age, etc. The only restrictions that there may be would involve specific services or law that your employer is supposed to provide to you as their employee, as some require a minimum number of employees for it to be applicable. For, some of the specific anti-discrimination laws were applicable to businesses with fifteen employees or more. Those restrictions then are only applicable under certain conditions.

According to federal law, here are some of the main rights that employees have:

  •          Workplace Safety and Protection From Hazardous Conditions-The right to a safe working environment and safe conditions has had a lot of laws associated with it over the years since social reforms went through after the Industrial Revolution. The current law that dictates that right and the specific that are included under it is the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970 or the OSH Act.1 It is enforced by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), which was created by the law and is now the main branch of the U.S. Department of Labor that sets workplace safety standards. In addition to the right to safe working conditions, OSH Act also grants employees the right to access information about safety standards/hazards, view records for your workplace, participate in inspections, and file reports or complaints to OSHA regarding safety violations. You can visit OSHA's website (osha.gov) to learn about the specific safety standards that are required for your workplace or industry.
  •          Right to Information Access-Employees have the right to access any information about their job within the business, and any information found in their employee records.2 This can include things like their personnel file, performance reviews, medical records, and basically anything else that has information on them. Requests can be made to see the original document(s) with the information or a copy, depending on what the file is and what usage it has within the business. Employers are required to keep and maintain any copies of things like illness/injury records, so denying you access because of weak reasons like "it doesn't exist" are not acceptable (and may be a bit illegal). If you want to access any information regarding yourself as an employee, submit the request according to the instructions or system that is set up in your workplace. If you're not sure how to do that, you can usually check out sources like the employee handbook or a Human Resources (HR) representative to find out how.
  •          Right to Privacy-There's also a certain amount of right to privacy that employees have. Federal employees have their personal information under restricted access by law, but most employers in private companies are expected to use good judgement in who has access to private information.3 For example, limiting access or disclosure of information like an employee's Social Security Number only to those with legitimate reasons (e.g. HR). The use of consent or authorization forms regarding employee personal information, personal search, and things like drug testing is highly recommended. Right to privacy does not protect employees from being monitored by their employers while at work, e.g. monitoring phone or computer usage. Cameras are allowed for monitoring and security purposes, but they are not allowed in places like bathrooms or locker/changing rooms and the presence of cameras or other monitoring methods should be disclosed to employees (and possibly customers).
  •          Equal Employment Opportunity-The Equal Employment Opportunity is a part of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and is a part of the laws protecting employees form discrimination and harassment. Basically, the law states that all employees should have an equal chance for opportunities (excluding things like requirements and qualifications for a position) and should not be limited based on things like their demographics. Anything that the EEOC enforces, investigates, and monitors is covered under this law.
  •          Right to Reasonable Accommodation-Under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), all workers are legally required to have access to accommodation or assistance due to disabilities of all kinds.4 If you have a disability that may impact your ability to do your job in the same way as your non-disabled peers, then you have the right to be given any necessary accommodations to help you do your job safely by your employer. For example, if an employee is in a wheelchair, employers are required to make sure that they can get around-e.g. functioning elevators, installing/maintaining wheelchair ramps, etc. This also applies to temporary disabilities, like if you broke your leg and are on crutches. It is not considered a violation of the ADA if those accommodations are impeded by outside forces, like the elevator not working because of a power outage. Be sure to notify your employer if you need accommodation(s) due to a disability as soon as possible, especially if it is a new job or if those accommodations are extensive and may need time to get set up.
  •          Fair Wages-All employees are entitled to fair wages for their work. This means that getting paid when you are supposed to be paid, adequate payment for the work you've done, and via the appropriate methods as agreed upon under the conditions of your employment. If you're supposed to be paid $15/hour, but were only paid $10/hour (before taxes and such) then it could be seen as a violation of your right to fair wages. If you worked for forty hours in a week and it's recorded that you did, you should be paid for those forty hours. Employers are not allowed to alter the terms of your payment/salary outside of the terms of your employment without reason or proper notification (e.g. you skipped out on work for ten hours this week and there's proof, so you're not going to be paid for those ten hours.) Often this can extend to any employee benefits that are also a part of your employment.

    Any state laws that are in place regarding employee rights will, of course, vary from state to state. To understand what rights you may have in your state, do some research on your own or contact your state's department of labor to learn more.

    Interested in learning more? Why not take an online Preventing Workplace Harassment course?

      What Rights Do Employers Have?

    Employers have all of the same rights as any one of their employees as it is applicable. The primary difference is that they are also responsible for enforcing those rights and the associated laws within the business. It is their responsibility to ensure that they are providing a safe working environment and are following all of the applicable safety standards.5 They must make sure that they are not abusing employee information or privacy and that they are allowing their employees access to the necessary information. Disability accommodations are also their responsibility, and they must make sure that they are not discriminating against those employees in need of those accommodations. That all employees are getting fair wages for work done (including themselves). It's double-duty; if they want to have the same rights as their employees, they need to be responsible and make sure that those rights are being offered and maintained in the workplace.

      What About The Customers?

    There are occasions where customers are involved in instances of workplace harassment. They can often be bystanders, but it's also not unheard of for a customer to be either the harasser or the victim. Again, it's the employer's responsibility in any case to ensure the rights of everyone in their business-and that includes the clientele. What those responsibilities are usually depends on what role the customer is in:

  •          As the Victim or Bystander-The safety standards established for employees also apply to the customers. If they are being harassed by an employee or are witnessing the harassment as done by an employee, then their rights may be in jeopardy and they are legally allowed to take the appropriate actions. In those cases, someone needs to step in and make sure the customer is okay and offer them an apology in the very least. Proper procedure should be followed to discipline the harassing employee and steps should be taken to ensure that future incidents do not happen.
  •          As the Harasser-Harassment from customers is becoming increasingly common and there's quite a bit of discussion as to who is liable and what rights are in play in those circumstances.6 Under law, employers can be held liable for harassing behavior directed at employees by customers.7 This is usually because it is the employers responsibility to ensure employee safety and security, which can be at risk with harassment. All cases of customer harassment should be treated with the same seriousness and care that would be allotted if the harasser was an employee.

      Who Is Responsible For Preventing Harassment?

    Just as the different staff members of a business have duties and responsibilities related to their job, there are certain duties and responsibilities tied to preventing harassment. Prevention measures are not instantaneous and will not do anything simply because someone says they should. There are responsibilities tied to harassment prevention in terms of creating measures and rules, implementing them, keeping them up-to-date, and enforcing them. Lapses in any one part, while not completely destroying the purpose of prevention, will at least greatly diminish their effectiveness and value.

  •          Who SHOULD Get Involved?-Technically, participation in preventing workplace harassment should apply to EVERYONE in the business. Anyone can be a victim of harassment and anyone can be a harasser. The effects of harassment can extend to bystanders and witnesses. Preventing harassment should be a team effort that everyone in the workplace should be doing their part to help make sure that that effort is even moderately successful. Even if you do what you are able, it is still better than not doing anything at all. Employers and other administrative personnel in a business are technically required to get involved in prevention measures, as it is their responsibility to prevent and address workplace harassment.8 In the event that they are the harasser(s), outside or third-party assistance may need to be brought in in order to keep things appropriate.


  •          The "It's None of My Business" Argument-There is always someone who wants to keep themselves as far removed from a situation as possible, even when it is unfolding before their eyes. This happens quite a bit in the workplace with harassment, as some people want to avoid being drawn in for whatever reason or they simply do not recognize events as harassment.9 However, the old argument of "it's none of my business" should not be a valid reason not taking action against workplace harassment. As stated, those who can be affected by harassment include more than just the victim and the harasser so it actually is your business.

    Efforts to identify and address instances of workplace harassment are also partially the responsibilities of everyone in the workplace. If you see harassment going on, you should reported to the proper authorities in the workplace rather than doing nothing. However, the official responsibility falls to the employer and other administrative staffers. By law, the employer or owner of a business is liable for any harassment or discrimination that occurs amongst their staff members.10 If complaints have been made to the employer or have been filed with the employer's knowledge, failing to act upon them can be seen as a failure of their legal duty to ensure the rights and safety of their employees. Establishing the reporting system and policies for workplace harassment is also the employer's legal responsibility, largely in part because they are the ones who have the power to create those things in the workplace to begin with.11