Damages for harassment at the workplace

Unfair treatment at the workplace only qualifies as harassment if it based on continuing hostile and discriminatory behavior that follows a purpose not protected by the legal system and infringes on an individual’s personality or similar rights (judgment by the Higher Labour Court (Landesarbeitsgericht, LAG) Rheinland-Pfalz, 30 November 2015, docket no. 3 Sa 371/15).

In this case, the employee sued for damages on the grounds of harassment at the workplace. He claimed that he was given inferior tasks that did not match his position. He also held that he was not provided with a desk, a computer or internet access. The court, however, stated that the term “harassment at the workplace” is neither a legal term nor a basis for a claim. The legal qualification of behavior described as harassment at the workplace is assessed by looking at the alleged unlawful behavior in its entirety, which means that individual acts that would not amount to harassment could overall amount to harassment and thus trigger legal consequences. Harassment at the workplace requires systematic and purposeful hostility towards the employee. This requirement is not fulfilled if a conflict at the workplace escalates and the employer then takes disciplinary actions that are not adequate, such as suspension of the employee or an unlawful transfer to another position. Inappropriate directions by a superior on how to perform one’s work do not constitute harassment, even if the employee feels that he was treated unfairly.

The court confirms that in a case of alleged harassment, the employee bears the burden of proof for the existence of harassment at the workplace. He must therefore state and prove the behavior complained about. In the present case, the employee presented the court with a diary of harassment that had been subsequently produced for the lawsuit and only covered just over 10% of the relevant days so that it only had limited value. Also, the diary included subjective evaluations rather than objective reports of the alleged unfair treatment. Ultimately, the court thus found that the employee had not produced sufficient evidence that the employer had in fact exceeded permitted behavior.