Verbal harassment

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Updated: 4/13/2007 3:36 pm
The first amendment of the Constitution protects a person's freedom of speech, but if an individual's speech is of a derogatory nature and occurs repeatedly in the workplace, it can constitute harassment in certain areas of federal employment laws. Basically, all employees are guaranteed the right to work in an environment free from workplace harassment. As a result, when verbal expressions like racial slurs, sexual jokes, or name-calling create an intimidating working environment and interfere with an individual's work performance or negatively affect his or her employment opportunities, employers have the legal responsibility of addressing the offensive behavior and taking the appropriate disciplinary actions to remedy the situation. If employers make no attempt to remedy or prevent a hostile work environment, they can be held liable for their inaction in a court of law. Generally, victims of verbal harassment may be able to seek damages if they can prove that the harassment was severe or pervasive enough to create a hostile work environment and was based on either race, religion, sex, national origin, age, disability, veteran status, or, in some jurisdictions, sexual orientation, political affiliation, citizenship status, marital status, or personal appearance. E-mail messages can be used by lawyers as evidence in cases involving such critical issues as sexual harassment. Keep in mind that verbal harassment laws often come in conflict with free speech concerns. Furthermore, verbal abuse that's not of a sexual nature can be more difficult to prove. Courts usually handle verbal harassment claims on a case-by-case basis, examining both the severity and pervasiveness of the behavior. If you can substantiate verbal harassment with witnesses or with well-documented records of each incident, you should express your concerns to your human resources department. If an agreement can't be reached between you and your employer, it may be necessary to consult an attorney or file a complaint with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Companies can take steps to prevent verbal misconduct from becoming harassment by posting policies and establishing grievance procedures for victims.

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