What is a hostile work environment?
We may think that we know it when we see it, but that’s not factually correct. A mean boss, gossipy coworkers with bad breath, and the absence of benefits and perks are all unpleasant facts of work life. However, in themselves these factors do not prove the case. This is because to be legally hostile, there must be discrimination.
The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), created by the Civil Rights Act of 1964, monitors discrimination and determines the rules. Harassment is behavior that violates Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967, and the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990.
Sometimes hostile behavior is instigated by the employer to push the employee to resign. For instance, this may occur when the employee has reported the employer for illegal behavior and therefore the employer cannot fire the employee. It need not always be on the part of the employer; union representatives or other employees can harass a new employee for refusing to sign up for the union.
What are the criteria for determining a hostile work environment?
A hostile work environment is a workplace so hostile that the worker fears going to work. Specifically:
- The actions must discriminate against a protected classification. The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission defines these protected classes as race, color, religion, sex (including pregnancy), national origin, age (40 or older), disability, or genetic information.
- The hostile behavior or communication must be severe and pervasive and over time rather than limited to a single remark or two. Also, the employer did not investigate and address the issue effectively enough to stop the behavior.
- The hostility must seriously disrupt the person’s work or interfere with her career development. However, the victim does not need to be the person harassed—it can be anyone affected by the conduct, such as those who witness it. In cases of hostile work environment harassment, there need not be a tangible employment action or economic injury (such as being fired) to make a claim.
- It is reasonable to believe the employer knew about the situation but did not intervene adequately.
- It is also prohibited to retaliate against individuals who file a discrimination charge, testify, or participate in any way in the investigation, proceeding, or lawsuit under these laws or oppose employment practices that they reasonably believe violate these laws.
Note: There must be discrimination only against the protected characteristic. If the manager (or other individual) was hostile regardless of sex, race, etc., then it’s quite legal. Really!
What to do if you have experienced a hostile work environment
If you are subject to a hostile work environment, the first step is to ask the offending employee to cease the bothersome behavior if possible. If you pursue a harassment complaint, your employer is required to investigate it promptly and impartially. The alleged harasser should not have control over this investigation. If you and the alleged harasser need to be physically separate during the investigation, this separation should not burden you as the person who made the complaint.
Note: A lawsuit on the grounds of a hostile work environment will not be successful if the employer had not been informed of the situation and given the opportunity to resolve it.
How the company can defend itself against a charge of a hostile work environment
If the employer is otherwise liable, it can prove that it reasonably tried to prevent as well as to correct the hostile behavior. The employer must also prove that the employee failed to pursue preventive and corrective opportunities offered by the employer.
For further information and legal advice, contact the EEOC’s web site at http://www.eeoc.gov or an employment attorney.
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