Can I Sue for Workplace Verbal Abuse?

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Most everyone at one time or another has had a boss who yelled at them at least once in their career. If verbal abuse is discriminatory, or if an employer knows of hostile or dangerous harassment in the workplace and does nothing to intervene, this can lead to a lawsuit. However, verbal abuse alone is a gray area.

Protected Classes in the Workplace

According to the U. S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967, and the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 define harassment as uninvited conduct carried out against another person based on their race, creed, color, national origin, sexual orientation, age, disability or genetics. Such behavior is unlawful in the workplace when the person targeted endures it as a condition of keeping their job, or it is so severe as to be intimidating, hostile or abusive to the direct recipient or the people around them. Each state has additional protected traits, some of which can include marital status or gender identity.

EEOC laws cover businesses with 15 or more employers who work with that business for a minimum of 20 calendar weeks. The U.S. also has laws that protect workers if they file a discrimination charge, testify or participate in a discrimination investigation, proceeding or lawsuit. The law also covers them if they oppose employment practices that they find discriminatory.

Offensive Conduct and Types of Workplace Harassment

Behaviors like rudeness, annoyances and petty slights are generally not unlawful in the workplace. However, offensive conduct can include inappropriate jokes or pictures, slurs, name-calling, physical threats or assault, intimidation, innuendos of a sexual nature, mockery and insults, all of which can alter a worker's environment and their work performance.

Harassment can also occur in a variety of ways. For example:

  • The person harassing a worker can be their direct supervisor; a supervisor they don't work with directly; a coworker; or someone who doesn't work for the company, such as a vendor.
  • The victim does not have to be the direct recipient of the abuse; it can simply affect them.
  • Unlawful harassment may cause economic damage to, or the discharge of, the person receiving it.

Suing an Employer for Harassment

If an employee has a verbally abusive boss they want to sue, to be successful, they must prove that the person in question violated the harassment statutes set by the EEOC. First, the abuse must be so severe that it affected that person's employment, and getting yelled at frequently can undoubtedly do that. But verbal abuse must also discriminate against one of the federal protected classes listed above or under state law.

If one or more workers have complained about the abuse and nothing was done, it might help their case. For example, an employer's actions that single out only Latino women for verbal abuse may constitute harassment that could be grounds for a lawsuit. However, if that same boss yells at everyone in the office, there is no discrimination. That boss may be unpleasant to work for, but unless an employee shows how their employer discriminated against a protected class, they won't have much of a lawsuit.

Identifying Verbal Abuse in the Workplace

When identifying verbal abuse, the perpetrator's position, such as manager or supervisor, factors into consideration when attempting to protect a company from a lawsuit. For example, a demanding employer who shouts when a worker doesn't meet deadlines differs from someone shouting racial slurs.

To avoid potentials lawsuits, employers should conduct training of all staff, particularly those in human resources, to fully identify abusive behavior. When verbal abuse, workplace bullying or any kind of harassment occurs, reporting instances of this behavior is essential, as the employer may not know of the problem or may need more evidence to take appropriate measures.

What to Do About Verbal Abuse at Work

If an employee can't file a lawsuit, it doesn't mean they have no options. They can speak with an HR representative or someone in management about harassing conduct. A person in charge may not know that abuse has occurred or how greatly it affects workers. After hearing about it, they and the company may show a willingness to intervene in the situation.

In some states, verbal harassment may violate other labor laws, such as those regarding wages and hours. For example, several states allow workers meal and break periods after working a certain number of hours. An employer who doesn't let someone take these breaks may violate labor law. There should also be additional information on what constitutes harassment and verbal abuse in a company's handbook.

Harassment and Employer Liability

If a supervisor's harassment results in an adverse action such as termination, the loss of a promotion or wages, or a hostile work environment, the business can be liable. It may be able to avoid liability if it can prove that it attempted, within reason, to prevent or correct the supervisor's harassing behavior and the worker did not take advantage of preventive or corrective measures put forth by the employer.

A business is also liable for the actions of its employees in a nonsupervisory role and for nonemployees who work with the company if it knew of the harassment but did not take the proper steps to stop the behavior. When the EEOC investigates complaints against employers that involve one or more of the protected classes, it researches the whole incident, including the nature of the conduct and the context in which it occurred to decide if the harassment is severe enough to be illegal. Workers who wish to file a complaint about workplace harassment should contact the EEOC through its Public Portal or call 800-669-4000.