Is your boss threatening your job if you don’t “see things his way?” Is a coworker sabotaging you or taking credit for your ideas? The workplace can be stressful enough without these issues to deal with. It’s time to act. Write down important details about your complaint and put them in a letter to Human Resources (HR). If HR has a complaint form, use that instead.
Identify workplace harassment.
Sexual harassment is one form of workplace harassment, but it isn’t the only form. You can be harassed on the basis of sex, race, color, religion, national origin, disability, age, or genetic information. Consider the following behaviors, which might qualify as harassment:
derogatory remarks or slurs based on the protected characteristic
threats and physical assaults
telling offensive jokes
Write down details about the harassment.
You’ll want to give Human Resources as much information as possible. Accordingly, you should sit down and write down the following:
Who harassed you and their relationship to you. You can be harassed by a supervisor or by a co-worker. Also, the harassment can come from someone as the same sex as you.
When each harassing act occurred—date, time, and location. Also write down what the person said or did, and how you responded.
Who witnessed the harassment. Write down their names and job titles.
What tangible evidence you have of the harassment. For example, you may have harassing emails, voice mails, or notes.
Format your letter.
Set up your letter like a standard business letter. If you know the name of the contact in Human Resources, then include that in the salutation. Call and ask if you don’t know.
Introduce yourself and your purpose.
In the first paragraph, you should give HR some idea why you are writing to them. For example, you should state that you want to lodge a complaint about harassment and identify your harasser.
Lay out the facts of the harassment.
Be clear and get to the point. You want to provide enough information that HR can see there is a harassment problem that needs investigation. Explain where and when the harassment occurred, as well as who witnessed it.
Describe the incidents in chronological order, which is the easiest for people to understand.
In some larger organizations, HR might not know everyone, such as a coworker. You should identify who they are, e.g., “Jason Jones, who works in the cubicle next to me, saw our boss make the obscene gesture.”
Stick to the facts. You shouldn’t make any kind of allegation or charge that you can’t back up with proof, such as your written memories or a witness. For example, don’t speculate about your boss or coworker’s motivation for what they said or did. You don’t know that.
Explain how you responded.
This is legally important. Harassment is only illegal if it is unwelcome. If you welcomed the harassing behavior, then you haven’t been harassed according to the law. You should state what you did or said in response. For example, you might have told someone not to touch you.
Also explain if you tried to resolve the issue. For example, you might have met with your harasser to ask them to stop making sexually-explicit jokes.
Remember to explain how the harassment made you feel. For example, you might have had trouble working in a team with the person who was harassing you, which caused you to skip work or perform below your usual standards.
Propose a solution.
At the end of the letter, you should state what you want from HR. For example, you might want to be transferred to a different department. You can also request that HR investigate and punish your harasser. However, you should probably avoid telling HR to “fire” your harasser. That’s their judgment to make.
Remember to end the letter by thanking HR for their time. Insert “Best” or “Sincerely,” and then sign the letter.
Avoid using offensive language.
Although you may be angry, you should try not to show it. Using foul language can only undermine your ability to get help. In fact, the person reading the letter might become angry at you.
Instead of writing, “I’m so pissed right now,” write “I am angry.”
Instead of “my boss is a bigot,” write “Mr. Jones intimidates me by repeatedly yelling at me using racial slurs.”
Send the letter to HR.
After you sign your letter, make a copy before sending it. Also hold onto any supporting documentation, such as emails, voicemails, notes, or witness statements. You may need to share them if HR opens an investigation.
Identify why you want to complain.
There are many issues you should bring to the attention of Human Resources. For example, you might want to complain about the following:
You haven’t been paid properly: your company might be withholding pay, not calculating it properly, etc.
You have not received what you have been promised under your employment contract.
Your boss or coworkers are bullying you. Some abuse doesn’t qualify as workplace harassment. Legally, harassment must be based on a protected characteristic, such as race, gender, religion, age, etc. Nevertheless, someone might bully you simply because they don’t like you, and you should report them.
For example, a coworker might say something that makes you uncomfortable. A random sexually-charged joke might not qualify as sexual harassment. However, there’s no reason to put up with it. You can report inappropriate behavior that makes you uncomfortable.
You have to imagine the HR employee who reads your letter. They might not even know who you are, and they have no reason to believe you. For these reasons, you’ll need to fill your complaint letter with facts. Gather the following:
What happened, when and where. If you’ve been bullied, write down the details.
Who is involved (your immediate supervisor, coworker, employee in a different part of the organization, etc.)
How you attempted to resolve the issue. Did you talk to a supervisor? Ask HR for help already? Write down the dates and the names of who you spoke with. Also summarize any responses you received.
Set up your letter.
You’ll want to write using a business letter format. Properly format your word processing document by choosing a legible font size and style (Times New Roman 12 point works well). Also use block paragraphing.
Contact HR and ask who to address your letter to. Your salutation should read “Dear Mr. Jones” or something equivalent.
Begin the letter.
It’s best to get right to the point. State that you want to make a complaint and identify the substance of the complaint. If you work in a large organization, you should probably identify yourself as well.
For example, you can begin with something like the following: “I am a data processing clerk in our accounting office. I’m writing to complain that my total pay has been inaccurate for two months now.”
Give the reader enough information so that they can effectively investigate. If you haven’t been paid properly, identify the pay periods. If you’re being bullied, provide a chronological discussion of the major bullying incidents. You can provide more detail later.
You can write something like the following: “There have been three major bullying incidents” and then write “Additionally, there has been low-level bullying, which I am happy to discuss in person with you.”
Explain how you have handled the issue.
Let HR know what attempts you have made to fix the problem and why you are unsatisfied with the results. If you’ve spoken to a supervisor, state so. Remember to provide dates.
For example, you can write, “On January 12, I told my supervisor, Kevin Jones, about my pay being wrong. Although he said he would investigate, my pay hasn’t changed and he doesn’t seem too worried about it. We are now approaching the two-month mark and I am still not being paid properly.”
Also let HR know how you have been feeling. For example, if you are being bullied, briefly explain how it has affected your health. Identify if you had to take time off or had to see a doctor.
End the letter with a request for help.
Ask HR to investigate and to contact you if they have questions. Sign your letter beneath the word “Sincerely” and keep a copy of the letter for your records.
If you don’t think HR has your phone number, you can include that as well.
Meet with an HR investigator.
Depending on the severity of your complaint, HR might appoint an investigator to gather more information. You may need to sit down for an interview. Also provide supporting documentation promptly.
Although you may be told that the interview is confidential, you should expect many other people in the organization to know what you have written.
You may be disappointed with the resolution HR reaches. For example, don’t be surprised if management is let off the hook with only a slap on the wrist.
Participate in mediation.
Human Resources might have a mediation program you can use to resolve disputes. In mediation, you and the person you are having problems with will meet with the mediator, who is a neutral third party. The mediator isn’t a judge. However, they can help each side talk and listen to each other.
The purpose of mediation is to resolve the dispute voluntarily so that each side can walk away feeling good.
If the harassment has been severe, you shouldn’t feel compelled to mediate a dispute with your employer. Instead, you should find an attorney and discuss next steps.
Your employer might offer “conciliation,” which is like mediation. However, the conciliator is more involved in decision-making than a mediator, who lets the parties decide a proper resolution.
File a harassment charge
with the EEOC. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) investigates claims of workplace harassment. You can file a complaint (“charge”) with them. You may also complain to a state agency that investigates harassment.
Avoid delay. You have 180 days from the date of the harassment to file a discrimination charge with the EEOC. Your state agency may give you more time.
Generally, federal EEOC law cover most employers. But some smaller employers might only be covered by state law. If your employer has 15 or fewer employees, you may need to complain to your state agency. Use the Assessment System at the EEOC website to check whether you should direct your complaint to a state agency: https://egov.eeoc.gov/eas/.
with the EEOC.
You need expert assistance to protect your rights. A lawyer can help you if your employer retaliates against you, continues to harass you, or refuses to pay owed wages. Contact your local or state bar association and ask for a referral. Visit the American Bar Association to find your nearest bar association.
Ask for an employment lawyer. When you call to set up a consultation, ask how much the lawyer charges.
Prepare for your consultation by gathering helpful documents, such as a copy of your complaint letter to HR.
At the consultation, you will discuss whether you have a legal case. Not all harassing conduct rises to the level of legal harassment. For example, one off-color joke probably doesn’t qualify.
Hire an attorney.