Employees should be able to perform their job duties in a healthy work environment. Many employees, however, suffer from hostile work environments, which may severely impact their ability to perform their job duties.
A hostile work environment is created when any individual in the workplace engages in harassment which makes it impossible for other employees to perform their job duties. This type of harassment includes unwelcome comments which unreasonably interfere with an employee’s work performance and are based upon the employee’s:
- Sex, including pregnancy;
- National origin;
- Age, if the employee is 40 years of age or older;
- Genetic information; or
- Any other characteristic which is legally protected.
A hostile work environment may be created by the following individuals:
- Repeat clients;
- Contractors; or
- Other employment staff who may have significant contact with the employee.
It is important to note that not all isolated incidents, petty slights, or annoyances will create a hostile work environment and rise to the level of illegality. If, however, an individual is in a situation where they are subjected to offensive and unwelcome conduct which has affected their employment, they may be able to sue their employer for a hostile work environment.
What Qualifies as a Hostile Work Environment?
A hostile work environment may present itself in numerous different ways. This may include sexual remarks or harassment which create an environment of intimidation and fear. The qualifications for a hostile work environment will vary from workplace to workplace.
As an extreme example, it may be considered normal for individuals to be present without clothing, such as a shirt, if they are getting a tattoo in a tattoo parlor. However, in an office environment, if an individual is shirtless and revealing offensive tattoos, this will likely be considered to create a hostile work environment, especially if the behavior is intended to intimidate or make other employees uncomfortable.
What are Hostile Workplace Laws?
The requirements an individual will be required to meet in order to bring a successful lawsuit for a hostile work environment differ based on the jurisdiction of the lawsuit. An employee may file a lawsuit against their harasser based on a hostile work environment either in state or federal court.
At the federal level, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) is the agency which is responsible for enforcing federal laws governing workplace discrimination based upon the protected characteristics listed above.
The EEOC will conduct an investigation in the workplace to determine if the legal requirements of a hostile work environment are met. These include:
- The type of conduct;
- The frequency of harassment;
- Discriminatory intent;
- The employer’s response; and
- The effect the harassment had on the employee.
The EEOC will review the typeof conduct and whether the harassing conduct was physical, verbal, or both. A physical threat or intimidation will likely result in harsher penalties for the harasser.
The frequency of the harassment will be reviewed to determine whether the conduct was pervasive and long lasting or a simple, isolated incident. A simple, isolated incident typically does not meet the requirements for a hostile work environment, unless they are extremely serious.
A claimant must demonstrate discriminatory intent in order to prevail in a hostile work environment claim at the federal level. In other words, the harassing behavior must be discriminatory against the protected characteristics discussed above or other categories which are legally protected by the EEOC.
The employer’s response to the harassing situation will also be examined. This may include whether the employer took immediate steps to correct the problem. If the employer was made aware of the issue but failed to take action such as investigating or intervening, they are more likely to be liable for a hostile work environment.
Due to this element, an employee is encouraged to tell the harasser directly that their conduct is not welcome and must stop immediately. The employee should also report harassment to management as soon as possible. These actions may help prevent the escalation of the hostile work environment and will provide management with an opportunity to address the issues.
The effect of the harassment on the employee will be examined to determine if it was so pervasive or severe that a reasonable individual would consider the work environment to be hostile, intimidating, or abusive. In general, this means that the employee’s ability to perform their job duties is greatly affected.
In addition to federal protections against a hostile work environment, an employee’s state or local jurisdiction may also have agencies or laws which regulate workplace discrimination and harassment. For this reason, it is important to consult with an attorney to determine whether it is best to bring a claim in federal or state court.
How Do I Prove a Hostile Work Environment?
As previously noted, an employee should inform their harasser directly that the conduct is unwelcome and should stop immediately. In addition, it should be immediately reported to a supervisor or management so they can address the issue and prevent it from escalating.
An employee should also communicate with the Human Resources department immediately. The employee must also be able to prove all of the previously discussed legal requirements in order to successfully claim a hostile work environment.
It is essential to keep records of communication which the employee has with management regarding the hostile work environment, as it could be important evidence if legal action is necessary. It is best to communicate with management regarding the hostile work environment in writing or by email, as these will be recorded methods.
Should an individual choose to inform management by phone, they should note that there are federal and state wiretapping laws which may limit their ability to record telephone conversations. Federal laws generally permit wiretapping so long as one party consents but some state laws require consent from both parties.
Can an Employer be Liable for the Actions of an Employee?
As previously noted, if an employer is informed of a hostile work environment situation and fails to investigate further, intervene, or otherwise address the situation, they may be held liable for the actions of an employee.
This is why it is essential to report the situation to management and Human Resources immediately.
What Types of Remedies are Available for a Hostile Work Environment Claim?
If an employee is able to prove a hostile work environment claim, they may be entitled to compensatory damages for losses the hostile work environment caused them to suffer. This may include compensation for lost wages, including benefits and back pay, resulting from the inability to work.
In cases where a hostile work environment caused an individual to lose their job, compensatory damages may be awarded to help put the back in the same position they would have been in had they not lost their job. Courts often reinstate the employee back to their position and order the termination of the offending employee.
In rare cases, an employer may be required to pay punitive damages to an employee if they engaged in intentional conduct which created a hostile work environment.
When Should I File My Claim for a Hostile Work Environment?
It is essential for the employee to notify the harasser, management and Human Resources regarding the offending behavior. This is because there must be documented evidence that the problem was reported in order to have a successful claim.
If the harassment continues and a hostile work environment arises, the employee should then contact their local state agency in charge of harassment in the workplace or the EEOC. These agencies can investigate the claim and determine if a lawsuit should be filed.
Do I Need a Lawyer to File a Claim for a Hostile Work Environment?
Although not required, having a workplace lawyer assist you with your hostile work environment claim will be invaluable to your case. Your lawyer can assist you with all aspects of the process, including reporting the claim to the EEOC or local state agency. Your lawyer will also assist you with gathering evidence and represent you in court if a lawsuit is necessary.