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To Complain or Not to Complain - That Is the Question

I frequently receive calls from employees who are being harassed by their supervisors, and simply do not know what to do. Often times these victims of workplace abuse fear that if they go above their boss, and complain to someone higher up the chain of command or perhaps to someone in HR, their boss will retaliate against them as soon as he finds out. They fear that the harassment will worsen, or that they may be written up, or even worse they may be fired from their job. Because of these concerns, the victims often suffer silently for as long as they are able to, hoping that things will somehow get better on their own. In today’s economic climate it is not difficult to understand why people fear losing their job, and their ability to support themselves or their families. On the other hand, no one should have to suffer in a hostile work environment on a regular basis. These competing considerations place victims of workplace harassment between the proverbial “rock” and “a hard place.” Do I complain about my boss and risk getting fired? Do I just continue to take the abuse? While there is never a “one size fits all” answer to this question, there are plenty of good reason for such victims to complain up the chain of command or to HR:

  1. The law protects employees who complain about unlawful workplace harassment against any retaliation by their employer. The California Fair Employment and Housing Act and its federal counterpart Title VII protect employees who make a charge, testify, assist or participate in any manner in proceedings or hearings under the statutes, or oppose acts made unlawful by the statutes. This means that it is illegal for the employer to retaliate against the employee for complaints of unlawful workplace harassment;
  2. It is unrealistic to expect things to simply get better on their own. Often times the harassment will continue to get worse until it reaches a point where it causes serious health issues for the victim who is then forced to go out on stress leave. Alternatively, in cases where the victim is able to withstand the stress and abuse, the abuser eventually finds a way to make up an excuse to get rid of the employee (i.e. to “manages out” the employee);
  3. The employer is required to remedy the situation. The California Fair Employment and Housing Act makes it an unlawful employment practice for an employer to fail to take all reasonable steps necessary to prevent employment discrimination and harassment from occurring.

I often advise employees of workplace harassment to complain to the appropriate person (whether it is up the chain of command, to corporate, or HR) but to make sure to do so in writing! Far too often in litigation, the employers will claim that they did know about the problem and that the employee never complained about anything. For this reason, among others, the better practice is to document a workplace harassment complaint in a writing (such as email) so there is no question down the road about whether or not there was a complaint.

As I mentioned above, there is never a “one size fits all” solution to this problem. Each employee’s situation is unique and should be analyzed individually. I strongly advise any victim of workplace harassment to consult a competent employment attorney before taking any action whatsoever. The employment laws are complex and unsettled, and it is critical to have a qualified attorney help you through the process.

LEGAL DISCLAIMER: The information provided here is not legal advice. The Akopyan Law Firm does not provide legal advice unless and until it is formally retained, and an attorney-client contract is signed. Each case is unique. The laws may or may not apply to your particular situation. This should not be used as a substitute for obtaining legal advice from an attorney licensed or authorized to practice in your jurisdiction. Some jurisdictions may have laws and regulations that differ substantially from one another. The Akopyan Law Firm does not provide legal services or practice law outside of the State of California. You should always consult an attorney in your jurisdiction regarding any specific legal issue.

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