Most people aren’t too fond of work, and surviving the workweek can sometimes be a challenge, but nobody should be subject to a hostile work environment. The line defining what qualifies as a hostile work environment can be a little vague, but there are several federal laws to protect against harassment that creates a hostile work environment.
What Legally Constitutes a Hostile Work Environment?
You may not enjoy working with that horrible boss or rude coworker, but an uncomfortable or high-pressure atmosphere isn’t necessarily illegal. There are five things that a court needs to see in order to consider your situation a hostile work environment:
- You are the victim of discrimination
- The harassment is severe, offensive, and/or abusive
- The harassment is ongoing and/or pervasive
- The harassment prohibits you from doing your job
- Your employer has failed to intervene and address the harassment
1. You are the Victim of Discrimination
There are four federal laws that protect an employee’s rights against discrimination-based harassment in the workplace:
- Title VII of the Civil Rights Act (Title VII)
- The Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA)
- The Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA)
- The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)
Together, these four federal laws prohibit discriminatory harassment on the basis of race, color, religion, national origin, gender, age (over 40), pregnancy, maternity, and disability. If the harassment that you’re subject to does not fall under one of these protected categories (e.g. if you’re mocked for your haircut, clothing, or personal hygiene), it’s unfortunately not protected by federal law, and will not qualify as a hostile work environment in court.
2. The Harassment is Severe, Offensive, and/or Abusive
This can be the hardest part to prove in a hostile work environment case. While casual and flippant remarks can be hurtful, it’s only illegal if the remarks are severely offensive and/or verbally abusive.
Similarly, a manager who casually smacks your rear or plays with your hair may not qualify as abusive or severe behavior. To assess the severity, the court will apply the reasonable person test. Would a reasonable person who is subject to your situation be severely impacted or offended?
The court will also consider whether or not the behavior in question disrupted your work. If the judge believes you were overly sensitive and the severity is questionable, he or she would probably not consider your case a hostile workplace environment.
3. The Harassment is Ongoing and/or Pervasive
This goes hand-in-hand with the severity assessment. Singular, isolated incidents usually don’t constitute a hostile work environment. For you to have a case, the court will need to see a history of severe, offensive, and/or abusive behavior.
That said, cases of physical assault are considered pervasive and don’t need to happen multiple times to be considered hostile.
4. The Harassment Prohibits You From Doing Your Job
Another key test for a hostile work environment is the extent to which the harassment gets in the way of you doing your job. The court will also consider how the behavior has affected your career progression.
If you have been passed up for promotions, assignments, or rotations due to the harassment and discrimination, that would constitute a hostile work environment.
5. Your Employer has Failed to Intervene and Address the Harassment
Even if your case checks all four of the boxes that we’ve just discussed, you’ll need to give your employer a chance to correct the situation before you can file a complaint or lawsuit.
Most businesses take discrimination and harassment very seriously, so bringing the matter to the human resources department will usually resolve the matter. If the employer fails to properly investigate your complaint, or if the investigation doesn’t result in action that corrects the harassment, that’s the icing on the cake for your hostile work environment case.
How to Address/Prove a Hostile Work Environment
Now that we understand what constitutes a hostile work environment, the big question is what you can do to resolve the situation. There’s no set path to do this, but generally speaking, you should take the following steps:
- Document your experience – whether your complaint makes it to HR or to the courtroom, you’ll need some type of evidence to prove your case.
- Ask the offender to stop – most people don’t realize the extent to which their words and actions affect their coworkers. Confronting someone that is creating a hostile work environment is uncomfortable, but you need to give them a chance to correct their behavior. For the purpose of documenting your experience, it’s a good idea to speak with the offending party in front of another coworker who can serve as a witness. If you send a memo or email, be sure to keep a copy for your records.
- Ask for help – as we discussed before, you need to give your employer a chance to correct the hostile work environment before you file a formal complaint. Speaking with a manager is good, but you’ll need to involve HR, too. Again, you may want to do this in front of another coworker, especially if that coworker can attest to the harassment and help your case.
- File a complaint with the EEOC – the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission is responsible for enforcing the regulations against discrimination and harassment in the workplace. Before you can file a civil suit against your employer, you’ll need to file a formal complaint with the EEOC (which you can do here). An agent will schedule an interview with you at the nearest local office, and you’ll have the opportunity to present your case along with any evidence. If the agent determines that it is indeed a hostile work environment, the EEOC will launch an investigation. However, before you involve the EEOC it’s a good idea to consult an experienced employment law attorney about your situation. If you have a case, your attorney can help you organize your evidence to better convince the EEOC agent to open an investigation, and they may choose to accompany you to the interview.
- File a civil lawsuit – once you’ve filed your complaint with the EEOC, you have the right to file a civil lawsuit against your employer for damages due to the hostile work environment.
Call our Employment Law team at (480) 464-1111 to discuss your case today.
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