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Questions about Workplace Abuse Laws

Workplace abuse that includes discrimination, sexual harassment, employee privacy violations, and workplace bullying is a very serious issue. Workplace abuse may be covert, using tactics such as verbal, nonverbal, psychological, physical abuse and humiliation. This abuse may be difficult to establish, as workplace bullies often operate within the established rules and policies of their company. However, much of this abuse is illegal in the United States, thanks to several laws that protect employee rights.

Below are five of the most frequent questions on workplace abuse answered by Employment Lawyers on JustAnswer.

Mental abuse by my boss is making it unbearable to go to work. Can I get legal help?

Your situation is not one of unlawful discrimination, but of persistent poor management style and a boss who is a bully. I'm afraid that there is no legal remedy for dealing with these types of personalities.

The U.S. Supreme Court has held that harassment and hostile environment laws were not meant to create a code of civility within the workplace. The phrase “hostile work environment" is legal terminology, and relates to discrimination which is federally prohibited—race, color, national origin, religion, sex, age, or disability. Absent proof that the hostility you complain of relates to one of the prohibited acts of discrimination, you have little solid ground to stand on with regard to legal redress.

I'm afraid that short of you convincing the top management or HR at your company to put a stop to the mistreatment by your boss, there is nothing you can do about your situation, other than perhaps look for new employment.

I want to quit my job due to workplace abuse and hostile environment. Can I collect unemployment?

Chances are high that your employer will fight any claim for unemployment. You probably are not going to be able to prove that you were subject to illegal harassment, that is, harassment based upon one's gender, race, age, etc. Mental harassment is difficult to prove, and therefore you may not have a case in court.

It will be up to the folks at unemployment to decide whether or not you were constructively discharged for reasons that had nothing to do with your performance. If they make that finding, they will give you unemployment.

If a person filed a complaint and is possibly retaliated against, what rights can be exercised to prevent harassment?

The retaliation laws only protect an employee who has engaged in protected conduct. Protected conduct includes all aspects of trying to oppose or remedy discrimination and involves laws prohibiting illegal workplace discrimination. Although an employee who reports protected conduct that is unfounded is still protected by retaliation laws, the conduct that was reported must fall under the definitions of illegal discrimination. Verbal abuse on its face is not illegal. Reporting verbal abuse that is not discriminatory, and therefore not illegal, does not constitute protected conduct.

As long as the complaint is regarding what would constitute illegal conduct on the part of the employer, it falls under protected conduct and a claim for retaliation can be made. Verbal abuse that is not discriminatory is generally not illegal.

Harassment is a crime, and targeted employees may press criminal charges on the abuser. Employees have the legal right to defend themselves from verbal abuse and harassment. If the employer were to terminate any employee as a result of exercising his/her rights to report this abuse, the employee would have grounds to sue the employer for retaliation and wrongful discharge.

I suggest you contact your state's department of labor to find the assistance that you or the employees need to remedy the situation here. If more than one employee stands up, the better the chance that the complaints will be taken seriously.

What is the legal recourse for a victim of workplace bullying/harassment with an effort to defame?

General harassment or bullying is currently not illegal under any state or federal law (though some states are considering such laws). However, defamation is an independent tort claim that you would have to bring on your own in a state court.

To put forth a legal claim of defamation, you may have to show such statements were made as “statements of fact,” that they were false, that they were made to third parties, and that you have been harmed in some way.

Sometimes, especially where workers are unprotected, the stress of the severe harassment becomes so intense that the employee begins to experience medical issues. If this can be proved, you may be entitled to a Workers' Compensation claim.

I am facing harassment at work that is not illegal discrimination. How can I protect my job, or my unemployment benefits, in case I am terminated?

If the discrimination does not fall under legal terms, it simply relates to poor management and you will have to seek an internal resolution. That means you either approach your senior management or the human resources department. At this point, unless you just cannot continue, quitting would make it difficult to obtain unemployment benefits.

However, documenting the harassment through emails ensures that, if you are terminated, the company will not have a legitimate statement that you were terminated for misconduct or "cause." Unless they can support that with proof, you would be entitled to unemployment benefits.

Workplace harassment is a common problem, and it is best to know your rights and privileges as an employee. It may be good to speak with a personal injury lawyer, as these types of attorneys deal with injury or potential injury to a person's well-being, whether physical or mental. If you are faced with harassment, you can ask an Employment Lawyer about it on JustAnswer. The answers and insights you get can help you determine the best course of action available to you.
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