What is a Hostile Work Environment?
There is a dictionary definition of “hostile” and then there is the legal definition of “hostile.” Yelling. Screaming. Demeaning treatment. Rudeness. Nastiness. If these are actions that are demonstrated by your co-workers and superiors, this likely is not actionable under the law. Even if your workplace is an unhappy place and your co-workers and management team is miserable, this doesn’t rise to the level of being actionable under the law. Hostile work environment claims cannot be based on the atmosphere being tense or unpleasant. A legally actionable hostile work environment claim must have the hostility based on an employee’s protected traits. That is, the hostility must be directed at the employee based on the employee’s protected trait and the hostility must be sufficiently severe or pervasive.
What are “Protected Characteristics”?
A hostile work environment must be based on conduct aimed at one or more of the employee’s protected characteristics. These characteristics include:
- Sex, sexual orientation, or gender identification
- Race or ethnic background
- Pregnancy status
- Marital status
- Military status
Proving the Existence of a Hostile Work Environment
To establish a legally actionable hostile work environment claim, an employee must demonstrate that the conduct that has been exhibited is based on a protected characteristic and that the offending conduct is severe or pervasive. Courts have been clear that anti-discrimination laws are not a civility code. A hostile work environment is not an unpleasant worksite, rude or obnoxious co-workers, or having a bad boss. The courts do not make it their job to deal with simple workplace arguments, disagreements, and the lack of civility and courtesy. Teasing or being excluded from activities by supervisors and/or coworkers may be rude and unprofessional, but it is not necessarily legally hostile. In demonstrating a hostile work environment, the employee must show that:
- The conduct is discriminatory in nature based on a protected characteristic, such as age, disability, race, or religion.
- The conduct is pervasive, occurring over time, and not just limited to a stray remark or statement that an employee found unacceptable. Conduct becomes pervasive if it continues over some time and is not investigated adequately by the employer to make the correct the offending actions.
- The conduct is severe such that the offending behaviors disrupt the employee’s ability to work
- The conduct must be unwelcome. The employee must make it clear that the conduct is unwanted but yet persisted.
Hostile Work Environment Based on Sex
The following are just a few examples of conduct which can create a hostile work environment based on sex:
- Discussing sex acts, sexual exploits, or using sexually suggestive or sexually explicit language
- Making unwanted comments about a person’s physical attributes such as breast size
- Displaying sexually explicit or sexually inappropriate pictures
- Sending sexually explicit or sexually inappropriate pictures via text messaging or email
- Unwanted touching
- Telling offensive jokes about sex or sexual orientation
Hostile Work Environment Based on Race or Religion
A hostile work environment can be based on other protected traits besides sex. For example, the conduct below may create a hostile work environment based:
- Displaying racially-charges pictures or images
- Using ethnic or racial slurs or derogatory racial terms
- Telling offensive jokes about race or religion
What are the Proper Steps to Take?
An aggrieved employee should make a written complaint and follow the company’s policy regarding reporting harassment. When facing a hostile work environment claim, an employer may defend against this type of claim if the employee fails to take advantage of the reporting mechanisms that are offered by the employer. Employees must take advantage of reasonable opportunities provided by the employer to correct or prevent the offending behavior. Check to see if your employer has a policy manual or an employee handbook that explains the necessary steps to make a complaint and follow those steps.
Contact the Law Firm of Morgan Rooks, P.C. for a free consultation. If you are experiencing a hostile work environment, you need to contact a knowledgeable and skilled employment lawyer. We will explain your rights under the law. With our guidance, you can take the necessary steps to protect yourself, your career, and hold your employer accountable.