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When words become harassment

Workplace harassment can take many forms, as far too many people know far too well. Sometimes words are not "just words" but can make you feel unsafe. If this happens in your workplace, it's important to know that the law is on your side.

Harassment based on your sex, race, religion or age - among other protected characteristics - is considered employment discrimination under federal law. According to the U.S Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), harassment becomes illegal when at least one of two things happens:

  1. For you to keep your job, you have to endure offensive, unwelcome conduct.
  2. The conduct is so severe that it makes your workplace a place that most people would consider abusive, hostile or intimidating.

What does offensive conduct look like? According to the EEOC, federal law protects you not only against physical assaults but against any of the following:

  • jokes, slurs or name calling
  • threats of physical assaults
  • intimidation or mockery
  • insults
  • offensive objects or pictures
  • interference with your ability to perform your job

In addition to federal law, the Minnesota Human Rights Act also provide protections in the area of employment.

Whether the behavior comes from a coworker or a supervisor, it's a good idea to report harassment to your HR department or another supervisor if you can safely do so. If your report does not result in an improved situation - or if reporting it makes things worse, which is also illegal - it is probably a good idea to speak with an attorney about the potential for legal action.

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