In United States labor law, a hostile working environment exists when one’s behavior within a workplace creates an environment that is difficult or uncomfortable for another person to work in, due to illegal discrimination.
What is a Hostile Working Environment?
A hostile working environment is a workplace in which abuse or harassment interferes with an employee’s work performance or forces them to do their job in an intimidating or offensive environment.
Harassment in the workplace might be based on race, color, religion, sex, pregnancy, gender, nationality, age, physical or mental disability, or genetic information.
While you may be most familiar with the concept of sexual harassment in the workplace, there are many other types of workplace harassment.
Examples of a Hostile Working Environment
Harassers may make offensive jokes, call names, make physical or verbal threats, ridicule others, display offensive photographs, or impede another person’s work throughout the day.
A hostile working environment is created when anyone in a workplace commits this type of harassment, including a co-worker, a supervisor or manager, a contractor, a client, a vendor, or a visitor.
In addition to the person who is being directly harassed, other employees who are impacted by the harassment (by hearing or viewing it) are also considered victims.
They, too, might find the work environment intimidating or hostile, and it might affect their work performance. In this way, bullies and harassers can affect many more people than just the targeted employee.
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What Makes a Work Environment Hostile?
Some employees believe that a bad boss, an unpleasant work environment, a rude coworker, failure to qualify for a promotion, a lack of teamwork, or the lack of perks, privileges, benefits, and recognition can create a hostile working environment.
And, yes, admittedly, many of these issues contribute to an environment that may not be especially friendly or supportive of employees.
An environment without employee-friendly offerings can be awful. A bad boss contributes particularly to an environment that employees may see as hostile.
According to a Gallup survey, 67% of U.S. employees are disengaged at work, 51% say they’re actively looking for a new job or are open to one, and 47% say now is a good time to find a quality job.
Moreover, Gallup’s data says that 70% of the variance in employee engagement is due to the environment provided by the manager.
According to SHRM, a lack of career development and opportunity is the largest contributor to employees quitting their job.
But, the reality is that for a workplace to be hostile, certain legal criteria must be met.
A hostile working environment is created by a boss or coworker whose actions, communication, or behavior make doing your job impossible.
This means that the behavior altered the terms, conditions, and/or reasonable expectations of a comfortable work environment for employees. Additionally, the behavior, actions, or communication must be discriminatory in nature.
Discrimination is monitored and guided by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) which was created by the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
The person complaining must prove they were discriminated against based on race, gender, color, religion, sexual orientation, ancestry, national origin, pregnancy, age, or disability.
And that the actions must have been pervasive and severe enough to be considered abusive.
So, a coworker who talks loudly, snaps their gum, and leans over your desk when they talk with you, is demonstrating inappropriate, rude, obnoxious behavior, but it does not create a legally defined hostile working environment.
On the other hand, a coworker who tells sexually explicit jokes and sends around images of nude people is guilty of sexual harassment and creating a hostile working environment.
A boss who verbally berates you about your age, your religion, your gender, or your race is guilty of creating a hostile working environment. Even if the comments are casual, said with a smile, or played as jokes, this does not excuse the situation.
This is especially true if you asked the individual to stop and the behavior continues. This, by the way, is always the first step in addressing inappropriate behavior at work—ask the inappropriately behaving boss or coworker to stop.
Legal Requirements for a Hostile Environment
In addition to the legal requirements for a hostile working environment described above, here is additional information about each factor.
The actions or behavior must discriminate against a protected classification such as age, religion, disability, or race.
The behavior or communication must be pervasive, lasting over time, and not limited to an off-color remark or two that a coworker found annoying. These incidents should be reported to Human Resources for needed intervention.
The problem becomes significant and pervasive if it is all around a worker, continues over time, and is not investigated and addressed effectively enough by the organization to make the behavior stop.
The hostile behavior, actions, or communication must be severe. Not only is it pervasive over time, but the hostility must seriously disrupt the employee’s work or ability to work.
The second form of severity occurs if the hostile working environment interferes with an employee’s career progress. For example, the employee failed to receive a promotion or a job rotation as a result of the hostile behavior.
It is reasonable to assume that the employer knew about the actions or behavior and did not sufficiently intervene. Consequently, the employer can be liable for the creation of a hostile working environment.
Dealing With a Hostile Working Environment
Tips to help victims stand against a hostile working environment:
1. Put the Employee on Notice
The first step an employee needs to take if he or she is experiencing a hostile working environment is to ask the offending employee to stop their behavior or communication.
If an employee finds this difficult to do on his or her own, they should solicit help from a manager or Human Resources.
When inappropriate behavior is coming from another employee, they are your best in-house resources. They also serve as your witness to the fact that you asked the offending employee to stop the behavior.
You want to put the offending employee on notice that their behavior is offensive, discriminatory, and inappropriate, and that you won’t tolerate the behavior.
(In the majority of cases, the employee will stop the behavior. They may not have realized the degree to which you found the actions offensive.)
2. Additional Resources to Consult Before Taking Action
These resources will help you address a hostile working environment before the hostility escalates. You can pick between: dealing with difficult people, dealing with a bully, holding a difficult conversation, and practicing conflict resolution skills.
They will all help you increase your skill in dealing with coworkers creating your hostile working environment. These skills and ideas may be all that you need since many bullies are spineless when confronted.
3. Retaliation Is Illegal
Especially in instances where you have reported the behavior of a manager or supervisor to the appropriate manager or HR staff member, the behavior must stop.
Additionally, the reported individual may not retaliate against you as a payback for your reporting of his or her improper behavior.
4. Ask for Help
An employee who experiences a hostile working environment, and has attempted to make the behavior stop without success, though, should go to his or her manager, employer, or Human Resources staff.
The first step in getting help is to ask for help. Your employer must have the opportunity to investigate the complaint and eliminate the behavior.
A later hostile workplace lawsuit you institute will flounder if the employer was unaware of the situation and had not been given the opportunity to address the behavior and hostile environment.
This is in your hands because, in most workplaces, hostile, offensive behavior is noticed and addressed when it is obvious or seen by many employees.
Employees rarely need to address the behavior on their own. When the behavior is not widely viewed or if it happens only in secret without witnesses, you must bring the hostile behavior to your employer’s attention.
Plus, you may find yourself surprised at how vigilantly your employer acts to prevent current and future incidents that may contribute to a hostile working environment.
Many employers regard harassment and the creation of a hostile working environment as actions that are deserving of employment termination following a confirming investigation. Give your employer a chance to do what’s right.
Employer Liability for Harassment
The employer is automatically liable for harassment by a supervisor that results in a negative employment action such as termination, failure to promote or hire, and loss of wages.
If the supervisor’s harassment results in a hostile working environment, the employer can avoid liability only if it can prove that:
1. It reasonably tried to prevent and promptly correct the harassing behavior; and
2. The employee unreasonably failed to take advantage of any preventive or corrective opportunities provided by the employer.
The employer will be liable for harassment by non-supervisory employees or non-employees over whom it has control if it knew, or should have known about the harassment and failed to take prompt and appropriate corrective action.
When investigating allegations of harassment, the EEOC looks at the entire record: including the nature of the conduct, and the context in which the alleged incidents occurred.
A determination of whether harassment is severe or pervasive enough to be illegal is made on a case-by-case basis.
How to Identify and Handle a Hostile Working Environment
Harassment at work is disturbingly common. A RAND study found that 1 in 5 workers reported suffering from abuse or harassment at work, including bullying, verbal abuse, or unwanted sexual attention.
When the abuse is severe and persistent, it can lead to a hostile working environment, which can make it difficult or even impossible for employees to do their job.
Are you currently coping with abusive behavior from your boss, co-workers, or clients?
To protect yourself and your career, you need to determine whether your situation meets the legal standard for a hostile working environment. Then, you can figure out how to handle the situation and what to do next.
Hostile Working Environments and the Law
Laws related to a hostile working environment are enforced by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).
Harassment becomes unlawful when the employee must endure the behavior in order to keep their job, or when it affects their salary or status. Hostile, abusive, or intimidating behavior is also considered harassment under the law.
Anyone who believes that their employment rights have been violated may file a charge of discrimination with the EEOC. You can file charges in four ways: online via the EEOC’s Public Portal, by mail, in person, and by telephone.
You normally have to file your complaint within 180 days of the incident. There are opportunities for an extension to 300 days if a state or local agency enforces a law that prohibits employment discrimination on the same basis.
But it’s a good idea to file as soon as possible.
It is important to inform yourself about the definition of unlawful harassment in the workplace before filing your claim with the EEOC.
The organization’s website has an online assessment tool that can help you determine if they will be able to help with your specific situation.
Employers are usually held liable for harassment caused by a supervisor or co-worker unless they can prove that they tried to prevent it or that the victim refused the help provided to them.
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Alternatives to Filing a Claim
If you do not want to file a claim, but find the work environment unbearable, you might consider other options. One is to solve the issue you are having with the person or persons making the work environment hostile.
You might speak to your company’s human resources office for advice on setting up a meeting or mediated conversation between you and the other party.
If staying at your workplace is unbearable, you might also consider resigning from your job. However, even if you are extremely unhappy at work, it is important to resign gracefully and professionally.
You never know when you will need a recommendation or a letter of reference from your boss, and a professional exit will help you get a positive review.
Hostility and the Job Interview
Occasionally, a job interview can be a hostile environment. For example, an employer might ask you inappropriate or illegal interview questions.
These include any questions about protected characteristics like age, race, national origin, gender (including gender identity and sexual orientation), religion, genetic information, etc.
If you’re asked an inappropriate interview question, only you can decide the best course to take. Although you’re within your rights to say that the question is illegal, it may be best to deflect.
After the interview, you can decide whether you want to pursue a job with an employer that asks those kinds of interview questions.
The information contained in this article is not legal advice and is not a substitute for such advice. State and federal laws change frequently, and the information in this article may not reflect your own state’s laws or the most recent changes to the law.
What is the EEOC?
The EEOC is actually the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
Which is responsible for creating and enforcing federal laws deeming it illegal to actively discriminate against an employee based on ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, national origin, age, disability, or genetic information.
This means that any employee working at a business, company, or organization in the United States has the right to work without being harassed, ridiculed, or picked on in an offensive way in the workplace.
Why Won’t they Leave Me Alone at Work?
Most people go to work to do their job to the best of their ability to be paid for an honest day’s work.
No one goes to work to deal with someone making rude, offensive, or off-color remarks aimed at taking the person off guard, stressing the individual out, or overtly threatening the person in the workplace.
When an employee is the target of harassment for any reason, it creates a highly stressful work environment on the job.
This stress can even lead to physical pains, and physiological illnesses, and over time, can even be responsible for an employee developing the symptoms of chronic disease!
EEOC Hostile Working Environment Claims
If an employee feels that the workplace is a hostile environment, then that employee needs to bring these concerns to the human resources or supervisor/manager at the job.
There is a definite test that needs to be met to determine if there is a bona fide hostile workplace environment (which is illegal).
Or whether it is a difficult and annoying workplace environment (which is unpleasant, but not illegal).
When an employee feels threatened by events or people in a work environment, the first step is to start writing down what is happening to document everything that occurs in the office as directed to this staff member.
What is Offensive Conduct in the Workplace?
If an employee goes to work every day and observes offensive conduct being performed by other employees, it leaves poor morale in the workplace for all employees who witness this behavior.
The harassment can be from the top down, from a manager to an employee, or from an employee to another same-level or lower-level employee.
It can even come in the form of an employee or a group of employees who are harassing a manager or upper-level supervisor.
The Human Resources Needs to Manage Harassment Issues Quickly
Harassment in any form in the workplace is “not okay,” and any time that this does occur, it needs to be stopped immediately.
This type of workplace behavior needs to always be reported to an upper-level manager and to the human resources department of a business, organization, or company.
Today, some companies do not have a human resources person on staff, those duties are handled at an out-of-state home office or a remote location office for the business.
In that case, the employee who feels threatened can call the home office to speak to someone about the offensive behavior that the individual is being confronted with on the job on a daily basis.
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Forms of Offensive Conduct in the Workplace
Offensive conduct in the workplace from the employers or an employee to the targeted employee can come in the form of:
‣ Offensive jokes
‣ Epithets and name-calling
‣ Physical assaults or threats
‣ Ridicule or mimicking
‣ Insults or put-downs
‣ Offensive objects, pictures, digital media
‣ Interference with work performance
Who is the Victim of EEOC Hostile Working Environment?
The victim of harassment in an EEOC-hostile working environment can be an employee who is targeted by these comments, or anyone else indirectly affected by the hostile comments of others heard in the workplace.
For example, if the harassment is directed at an employee, but it is heard by another employee too (or instead), the second employee may also have a claim that she is working in a hostile working environment.
Who is Responsible at the Workplace for Stopping Harassment?
If an employee is being harassed at the workplace by a manager, team leader, or supervisor, the company and the employer are still responsible for that manager’s actions.
The employer should stop any harassment that is taking place at the employer’s place of business, and no employee has to “just take it” when being treated unfairly on the job.
Once it is determined that a manager is taking advantage of an employee, the employer can terminate the manager from the position, but the manager is on disciplinary action or put the person on leave pending an investigation, with or without pay.
In the case that the employer knew of the harassment to an employee, reasonably tried to prevent it, and quickly corrected the manager’s offensive behavior, the employer may or may not be responsible for a charge of harassment by an employee.
If the employer ignored the harassing actions of a manager or supervisor towards an employee, then the employer may be at fault for the actions of the manager harassing an employee on the job.
Filing a Claim with the EEOC
The EEOC will investigate claims of a hostile environment at the workplace of the employer. The EEOC will review:
1. The strength of the evidence claiming harassment
2. Issues presented in the case
3. The impact of a lawsuit on the merits
If possible, the EEOC also helps to prevent discrimination and hostility in the workplace with education, outreach programs, and other employer training programs for the employees.
These efforts usually help to prevent issues in the workplace regarding EEOC claims by workers. A case can be filed with the EEOC in a field office located in all states across the country, for relief from any EEOC issues that may occur on the job.
As you can see, there are many nuances in the rules related to harassment and hostile working environments in the workplace.
If you feel that you are being unfairly targeted by harassment in the workplace, which is creating a hostile working environment, call us to discuss your case right now. We are ready to work with you to determine the merits of your case.
We are here for you at CEO Lawyer whenever you have questions regarding whether the situation where you work is considered a hostile environment or not.
We can go over the details of a claim for harassment, and work with you every step of the way.
Call today, we are on your side!
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