Workplace Harassment in a Small Business
Understanding Workplace Harassment in Small Businesses
Small businesses aren't exempt from workplace harassment issues. While state anti-discrimination laws, such as Chapter 151B in Massachusetts, typically apply to businesses with more than six employees, harassment can be a prevalent concern in smaller workplaces where rules and procedures may be less formal.
For individuals seeking information about their rights under Massachusetts law, it's common to come across references to Chapter 151B and feel discouraged. Small business owners might wrongly assume they have no legal obligations regarding harassment in their workplaces.
What many aren't aware of is that Massachusetts has separate statutes, such as Chapter 214, that prohibit sexual harassment and retaliation for reporting harassment, without any minimum employee count. Courts have emphasized that Chapter 214 ensures protection against sexual harassment for all employees, regardless of their employer's size (Chapin v. Univ. of Massachusetts at Lowell 977 F. Supp. 72, 82-83, D. Mass. 1997).
This means that whether you're facing unwelcome advances, inappropriate comments, or other forms of harassment, your rights are safeguarded, regardless of the size of your workplace. Small business owners must also remain vigilant to ensure a harassment-free environment, regardless of their company's size.
How to Report Harassment in a Small Business
In larger companies, reporting harassment often involves HR departments or designated personnel. However, in smaller workplaces, particularly if the owner or boss is the harasser, the reporting process may be less clear.
If the harasser isn't the owner, it's crucial to inform the owner of the situation. You're protected against retaliation for making this report, and the owner must address the issue if they're aware of it. Reporting doesn't require specific language or forms; a simple email or note describing the behavior and discomfort it causes should suffice. The owner should then initiate an investigation, which may involve discussing the situation with you but should not require you to engage with the harasser directly.
If the owner is the problem, clearly communicate that the behavior is unwelcome, and you can proceed directly to a legal claim without making a formal report.
Can You Quit the Job and Still Bring a Harassment Claim?
You're not obligated to endure an intolerable work environment. While resigning voluntarily may affect your ability to recover lost wages, you can still seek compensation for the emotional distress caused by the harassment. If the situation is so severe that a "reasonable person" would not continue working, you might also have a claim for lost wages, citing constructive discharge.
It's important, though, to consult an employment lawyer before taking this step, as the standard for proving constructive discharge can be fact-specific.
How to Bring a Harassment Claim Against a Small Employer
Though the law for smaller employers differs, the process for bringing a harassment claim remains the same as if you were dealing with a larger company. You must first file a complaint with the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination (MCAD) or the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). The initial complaint must be filed within 300 days of the events, approximately ten months. Missing this deadline could bar you from seeking any remedy, making it crucial to consult with an employment attorney promptly to understand your rights.
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