Harassment can be difficult to define, especially when it comes to officially complaining about it. With so many personalities coming together in one place, disagreements are likely. If your office has become a hostile work environment, you can file a formal complaint for hostile work environment conditions. However, it’s important to follow the correct steps to increase your chances of success.

Is it Harassment?

To make it easier to prevent harassment at work, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has issued a formal definition. Harassment becomes unlawful when:

  1. There are unfavorable conditions that you’re required to endure to stay employed, and 
  2. You're in a work environment that a reasonable person would call hostile. 

Simply having a bad feeling or disliking the way a coworker looks at you won’t suffice when it comes to a hostile work environment complaint. You’ll need documentable work behaviors like off-color jokes, inappropriate touching or racist comments.

By law, employees are protected against discrimination based on their gender, race, color, national origin and religion. Discrimination based on these categories violates Title VII of the Civil Rights Act and you may have other grounds to pursue legal action

Document the Events

There are several ways you can let your employer know there’s a harassment problem in the workplace. One is to write an official letter of complaint for unfair treatment, which can document your concerns in writing. Another is simply to schedule a meeting – either with your HR representative or your supervisor – and discuss the issues.

Before you take that step, you’ll need to make sure you have your case fully outlined, with as many facts and witnesses as you can gather. You should document each incident, complete with the date and time it occurred. If you can gather proof like voicemail recordings or objectionable emails from the offender, you’ll be even more likely to convince your employer to take action.

How to Write a Hostile Workplace Complaint Letter

An effective workplace complaint letter uses a professional, calm tone that simply presents the facts. Kick the letter off with something positive, such as your appreciation for your employer’s leadership or your own longevity with the company. Then calmly present the situation from start to finish. If an employee is making off-color jokes or deliberately acting in a discriminatory manner, provide examples of instances where this was clear. Then attach the documentation to your letter and ask for a meeting with the appropriate officials to discuss it.

As helpful as a letter can be, it should be accompanied by a face-to-face meeting with the HR representative or your boss, if at all possible. There you can demonstrate your concern about the matter, while also pleading for confidentiality. During this meeting, you should also stress how this situation is affecting other people on the team, which shows how the hostile environment is hurting the business as a whole, not just one person.

Filing a Complaint with the EEOC 

Another option is to file a complaint with the EEOC. You have 180 days to do this after the incident occurs. There are details on the EEOC website for how to file a claim but generally, you can file in person, by mail, or by calling 800-669-4000. You'll need to provide your persona details; it's not permitted to file a claim anonymously. Be prepared to give details about the harassment and any discrimination you faced, with times and dates if possible. The EEOC will then investigate your claim, which might involve visiting your workplace.

Your right to complain is protected by law. Your employer is not permitted to punish you or retaliate by firing you for filing an EEOC claim.