What makes a hostile work environment?

What conduct at work creates a hostile work environment?

Not every unpleasant interaction at work creates a hostile work environment. The offensive conduct must meet several criteria before a true hostile work environment exists.

“Hostile work environment” is a legal concept that is often misunderstood. An employee might believe he is dealing with a hostile work environment because he has an aggressive, impatient boss and rude coworkers who make offensive jokes every once in a while. In order for the legal system to consider his work environment “hostile,” however, their behavior has to be much more severe.

What creates a hostile work environment?

A hostile work environment exists when physical, verbal, and/or visual conduct at work creates an offensive, intimidating, and/or abusive environment.

  • The offensive behavior must be unwelcome. Asking your offender to stop his or her behavior will help you prove that it was unwelcome.
  • The offensive behavior must be pervasive. It must be severe enough that it interferes with your ability to work or somehow affects your employment situation. For example, discriminatory behavior can affect your employment situation by preventing you from receiving a promotion you are qualified for.
  • The offensive behavior must persist despite your efforts to stop it. If your boss made an offensive remark in January and then once again in August, you probably do not have a claim for hostile work environment. If he repeatedly engages in offensive behavior, a hostile work environment likely exists.
  • The offensive behavior is rooted in sexual harassment or discrimination.

What are examples of conduct that creates a hostile work environment?

  • Sexual harassment can create a hostile work environment. Unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and physical or verbal conduct of a sexual nature in the workplace violate Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Sexual harassment can affect your work performance and employment situation, creating a hostile work environment.
  • Harassment on the basis of any protected category can create a hostile work environment. Protected categories include race, color, national origin, religion, disability, genetics, age, and sex. Racial slurs, for example, can create a hostile work environment because discrimination on the basis of race is prohibited by law.

Remember, the conduct that creates a hostile work environment must be severe. A Supreme Court case, Oncale v. Sundowner Offshore Services, reminds us that Title VII “is not a general civility code.” Simple teasing and the occasional offensive joke do not constitute hostile work environment. An employment attorney can look into your situation to determine whether you have a legitimate hostile work environment claim.

Who can create a hostile work environment?

The conduct that creates a hostile work environment can come from:

  • Your boss,
  • A coworker,
  • A client,
  • An independent contractor, or
  • Any individual you must interact with at work.

What can I do about a hostile work environment situation?

If you are experiencing sexual harassment or discrimination at work, and potentially have a hostile work environment claim, you can take legal action. Don’t hesitate to contact KM&A for a free and immediate consultation with an experienced employment attorney. We represent clients in every county in Pennsylvania.  You can call us in Pittsburgh at 412-626-5626 or in Philadelphia at 610-616-5686. We can also be reached by email at lawyer@lawkm.com.