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Identifying a Hostile Work Environment

April 14, 2023 Hostile Work Environment

We have become increasingly sensitive to toxic work environments over the last few years. Employees are no longer willing to suffer in silence and employers are going to great lengths to create collegial, transparent workspaces where inappropriate behavior is not tolerated. And for those employers who are stuck in the past, social media and other internet communication platforms are rife with employees calling out their employer’s bad behavior, whether it’s wage violations or discrimination. 

Unfortunately, this has led to some confusion when it comes to whether employees have a legal claim when facing what they believe to be a hostile work environment. Whatever issues you may be facing at work, an experienced employment harassment lawyer can help you determine whether you have a claim and what you can do to assert your rights. 

Hostile Work Environment Has a Specific Legal Meaning

The phrase “hostile work environment” would seem to encompass a variety of unfriendly or adversarial situations in the workplace. In the legal sense, however, the phrase has a very specific meaning with a much narrower application. This is despite the fact that a “hostile work environment” is not specifically defined under state or federal law. 

You must first understand that a hostile work environment arises from harassment. Second, the harassment must be based on protected characteristics such as race, gender, religion, or age. Lastly, the harassment must be severe or pervasive to such an extent that it creates a threatening or abusive atmosphere for an employee or group of employees. 

In other words, a hostile work environment is more than just an unfriendly or intimidating atmosphere. Whether there is a hostile work environment will depend primarily on the specific facts and circumstances of each particular case. If you believe that you are suffering as a result of a hostile work environment, an employment harassment lawyer will be able to identify the pertinent facts in your case that will help you build your claim. 

What a Hostile Work Environment is Not

It may be helpful to provide some examples of unpleasant work environments that would not be considered hostile work environments for purposes of a harassment claim: 

  • A supervisor is rude and disrespectful towards all of the employees he is responsible for
  • An employee periodically teases a coworker about their car
  • A mid-level manager is extremely demanding of his subordinates, often expecting them to meet unrealistic expectations
  • An employee is constantly joking about younger workers’ lack of experience and refers to them as “babies” 

Assuming that these examples are not based on protected characteristics or are directed towards all employees equally, they would not constitute a hostile work environment. The last example may be problematic unless all of the employees are under the age of 40, which is not considered to be a protected class. 

What You Must Prove in a Hostile Work Environment Claim

In order to pursue a harassment claim based on a hostile work environment, you must be able to prove the following 4 elements:

  1. The conduct was unwelcome;
  2. The conduct was based on a protected characteristic; 
  3. The conduct was severe or pervasive; and
  4. The conduct was imputable to the employer.

An experienced employment harassment lawyer will be able to determine whether you have a claim and know what evidence you will need to prove each element. 

Unwelcome Conduct

Harassment is typically unwelcome, and this is rarely an issue in most hostile work environment cases. However, you should be mindful that many employers or harassers will claim that the behavior was encouraged. Therefore, employees who are being harassed should make it clear in no uncertain terms that the behavior is not welcome. 

Protected Characteristics

In order to be actionable, the harassment must be based on protected characteristics or aimed exclusively at members of a protected class. Federal and California state laws include the following as protected characteristics: 

Severe or Pervasive

An isolated incident or sporadic or trivial conduct is typically insufficient to prove that there is a hostile work environment. Instead, you must be able to show that the behavior is part of a repeated pattern. This is arguably the most difficult element of a hostile work environment claim, as it can include a spectrum of actions. Courts will consider a variety of factors including the frequency of the conduct, whether it involved physical threats or intimidation, and whether it was disruptive to the employee’s ability to perform their job. 

Imputable to the Employer

An employer can be held liable in a hostile work environment harassment claim only if they actually knew about the harassment or should have known about it and failed to take action to stop it. In a small, family-owned business, this element can be easy to prove, especially when it was an owner or manager of the business engaged in the harassment. However, this element can be much more challenging to prove in larger organizations. This is why it is so important to report harassment to your HR representative or as laid out in your employee manual. If you are not sure what to do, an employment harassment lawyer can provide you with guidance. 

Contact Attorneys for Employees if You Are Being Harassed at Work

Hostile work environments are not always obvious, even to those who are in them. The bottom line is that everyone deserves to be treated with respect in the workplace. Trust your instincts – get professional advice if you feel like you are being harassed and it’s impacting your ability to do your job. At Attorneys for Employees, we’re passionate about protecting the rights of workers and holding unscrupulous employers accountable. To discuss your case and how we can help, complete our online contact form to schedule a consultation.