How to deal with harassment at the workplace

How to deal with harassment at the workplace

Practical recommendations when dealing with harassment

Try to address the person who made the hurtful comment or joke by assertively and convincingly stating that the comment is disrespectful and ask them to stop. Do not make light of the situation and do not make it sound as a favor you are asking. Also, do not engage in further discussion as your request should be taken seriously to start with: It is not up to anybody else to tell you how you should feel. It is not your duty to school the offender. Also, further discussion might be used against you.

In the meantime, keep a journal with exact comments, date, time and some details on the context and/or confide in a friend; legally speaking, these are recognized as proof.

If you do not feel comfortable addressing the person who made the comment, you can ask a Works Council (Betriebsrat) representative or the Equal Opportunity Officer to do that on your behalf. Here you can use your journal to show how often the disrespectful behavior occurred.

Moreover, you have the option to make an official complaint with your employer, e.g., the Human Resources (HR) department. Since your employer has the duty to take care that your working environment does not demotivate you, the HR department must investigate your complaint. Moreover, the law protects you from repercussions in cases of complaints. If upon investigation, the HR department finds in your favor, they have to issue an official warning. This complaint will stay in the official record of the person you complained against and might appear in their future letter of recommendation (Arbeitszeugnis).

Legal context for dealing with harassment in Germany

The AGG provides protection against discrimination on the grounds of racism/ethnic origin, gender, religion/belief, disability, age as well as sexual orientation.

The AGG specifically forbids harassment at the workplace on any of those grounds. More precisely, harassment is defined as (1) unwanted conduct with the effect or purpose of violating the dignity of the person involved which (2) creates an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating, or offensive environment of humiliation (see §3.3. AGG).

Regarding possibilities of action and rights of employees in discriminating situations at the workplace:

1. You can complain directly to your employer about potential harassment. Especially in smaller businesses this is vital since not all of them have a HR department. Alternatively, you can file a complaint with the so called Beschwerdestelle (see §13 AGG) which represents the employer in AGG related matters.

2. The Betriebsrat especially is a good address for people who are not sure if they officially want to file a complaint. They usually find support there without having to decide on the official complaint immediately – which is important especially if your complaint is against a superior.

3. The AGG explicitly protects employees from repercussions because of complaints they make on the grounds of the AGG (see §16 AGG).

4. Regarding the processing of a complaint: The employer (or the Beschwerdestelle) has the duty to investigate the complaint raised by the employee. In addition, the employer has to take “suitable, necessary and appropriate measures, chosen in a given case, to protect the employee in question” (see §12. 3.). That is, the duty to make the harassment stop and/or prevent further harassment in the future.

5. Finally, an employee can file for compensation and damages against the employer if the latter fails to protect the employee that filed the complaint. However, it will be the final decision of a court if a certain behavior is actually to be classified as harassment at the workplace. Employees who think about filing for compensation and damages should definitely seek counselling for example with the FADA or a lawyer.

For further information, I recommend the “Guide to the General Equal Treatment Act” which explains the AGG as well as its scope and areas of protection. A good example of a code of conduct regarding workplace bullying and harassment in a research organization is the Code of Conduct of the Karolinska Institutet, which comes with additional instructions and material describing how conflicts should be addressed. The documents at Karolinska Institutet are good models for code of conducts that other research organizations can build upon.

Disclaimer: This blog post was written with input from the FADA. However, I am legally obliged to mention that I am not a lawyer and, as such, I cannot offer legal advice. I only compile the information I gather from legal sources. For legal advice, one should consult a lawyer.

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