It is critically important for employers and employees alike to understand the basics of what a hostile work environment is and what it is not. Understanding these basics helps to ensure that employers do not allow their work culture and environments to become hostile and helps to inspire employers to take an active role in protecting their workers’ rights. From a worker perspective, understanding the basic ins and outs of hostile work environments can help to ensure that if one develops, it is promptly identified and properly confronted with the assistance of an experienced attorney.
As an experienced employment litigation lawyer – including those who practice at Eric Siegel Law – can confirm, “hostile work environment” is a legal term, not a subjective concept. Your workplace may be full of mean-spirited people and you may spend your commute dreading the day ahead. However, the fact that your workplace is a terrible place to spend your time doesn’t necessarily mean that it is a hostile work environment.
The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission broadly describes a hostile work environment as occurring when “unwelcome conduct that is based on race, color, religion, sex (including pregnancy), national origin, age (40 or older), disability or genetic information” affects an employee/employees and “enduring the offensive conduct becomes a condition of continued employment” or the conduct results in the creation of an environment “that a reasonable person would consider intimidating, hostile, or abusive.”
What does this mean, practically speaking? Essentially, in order to be a victim of a hostile work environment, a victim must be a member of a “protected class” under the law. When that victim is subjected to unwelcome conduct based on that protective classification that is so extreme and/or repetitive that it makes continued employment intimidating, hostile, or abusive in the eyes of a reasonable person, the victim is likely facing a hostile work environment. If a victim is forced to endure the offending conduct as a continued condition of their employment, they are also likely facing a hostile work environment.
The offensive conduct in question varies in hostile work environment cases. Some workers have been subjected to repeated slurs, intimidation, put-downs, or offensive jokes, while others have faced threats and interference with their work performance. No two hostile work environments manifest in the exact same ways. Therefore, if you have questions about this subject, it is a good idea to seek legal guidance from a reputable attorney in your area who handles employment discrimination cases.