Walking the Thin Line Between Harassment and Annoyance

Dealing with high-conflict individuals in the workplace puts everyone on edge. These people seemingly seek out conflict and make everyone else’s lives more difficult with little-to-no reason for doing so. Navigating these relationships to keep yourself and your coworkers safe while still pushing your work forward is no easy task.

What’s important to understand is how to differentiate these individuals’ behaviors between actual harassment that’s a violation of Tennessee law and when it’s “just” annoying. People often come to me asking if they have a legal avenue to escape the toxic environment they’re in or if they just need to take the steps to do so on their own.

Defining Workplace Harassment in Tennessee

Harassment is a term that is broadly used among the people of Tennessee, but the legal definition requires more than what people generally understand. The federal law that prohibits harassment, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, prohibits an employer from: 

“Fail or refuse to hire or discharge any individual, or otherwise discriminate against any individual with hespect to his compensation, terms, conditions, or privileges of employment, because of such indiivual’s race color, religion, sex, or national origin”

There are other federal and state civil rights laws that provide protection based on other protected classes such as age, disability, pregnancy status, veteran status. These federal and state laws provide protection against harassment, as well. 

Harassment of a Protected Class

Note in the definition above that conduct that rises to the level of harassment must target a protected class. The actions must be severe or pervasive, meaning aggressive or consistent behavior, toward a member of the defined classes. Keep in mind, that one single, egregious event can satisfy this definition. 

If you are simply a fan of the Tennessee Titans and a manager, supervisor, or coworker comes into your office every single day and tells you that your team stinks and you should be embarrassed this is not protected harassment. This can be annoying and may interrupt your work, but Titans fans are not a protected class.

You may be shocked to find out that the above scenario also includes people who are obese. Obesity is not considered a protected class or trait, so if a manager or coworker regularly calls you “fat” and tells you to lose weight it still does not rise to the level of harassment in Tennessee. (It could, however, in certain circumstances, be disability harassment.)

Consider the Tools You Have in the Workplace

If you are facing behavior that does not qualify as harassment, you still have options at work. Tennesee follows the employment-at-will doctrine, which means employers can fire employees for various reasons, as long as it does not violate any law. So, just because your experience is not legally protected “harassment”  your boss, HR, or other managers can fire, or discipline the offender for the impact they’re having on you and others. 

Often, a good first step is to report the harassing behavior to your human resources department (if there is one) and a  manager who has the ability to either make a decision or escalate the issue to someone who does. Review your employer’s workplace policies. They often prohibit harassment and should provide a roadmap for reporting. And, often, require you to make a report of harassment.  Predatory individuals often know what they’re doing is demeaning without actually encroaching on a protected class. We want to empower you to tell your story to effect a meaningful change in your workplace.

At Hunter Law Firm, I am committed to hearing your story and pursuing all the legal avenues available to bring justice to your case. I, unfortunately, cannot pursue legal action against every individual in your workplace who is rude, uncaring, and demeaning, but we will pursue legal action against anyone whose actions rise to the level of harassment.

Contact Hunter Law Firm if you believe you or someone you know is being subjected to harassment in a Tennessee workplace.

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