Federal and state laws protect employees from hostile work environments. What qualifies as a hostile work environment, though, is not always clear. Employees who feel intimidated, scared, or distressed often need clarity about whether they are trapped in a hostile work environment.
It is important to understand that many different people can create a hostile work environment: your boss, but also other employees and even customers. Below are some common examples of conduct that can create a hostile work environment.
The words we use carry enormous power. Many hostile workplaces are rife with offensive or demeaning language, such as:
- Gross generalizations (“all women think that way,” “only a man would say that,” etc.)
- Bigoted jokes
- Offensive nicknames
Being subjected to daily slurs and put-downs can be demeaning and leave you feeling terrified of returning to work. Of course, one stray offensive comment is unlikely to make a workplace hostile, especially if it is not coupled with other offensive conduct discussed below. But when offensive and demeaning language is constant, then a workplace can definitely become abusive.
It is also important to recognize that hostile work environments are not limited solely to sexual harassment. Epithets, put-downs, jokes, and generalizations related to another protected characteristic can also make the workplace hostile. For example, you should watch out for any demeaning language based on the following:
- National origin
- Genetic information
Sexually-explicit language, even if not intended to demean someone, can also create a hostile work environment. Watch out for people who engage in the following:
- Displaying sexually suggestive pictures where others can see them
- Discussing sexual activities with co-workers
- Making sexually-suggestive jokes
As with epithets and slurs, a stray or random sexual joke probably does create a hostile work environment by itself. However, you should look for patterns of repeated offensive conduct, especially if you have asked the offending person to stop.
Threatening Gestures or Touching
Any unwelcome touching or gesturing can create a hostile work environment. The most obvious examples are someone groping an employee or getting into a fistfight with one. However, any unwelcome contact if motivated by someone’s protected characteristic can create a hostile work environment.
Remember that touching must be unwelcome. If you regularly give people hugs, you probably should not be shocked if someone comes up to hug you in return. Likewise, if you welcome touching and encourage it, you cannot turn around and claim that you are really offended by that touching.
Unlike with demeaning language or indecency, one act of inappropriate touching could create a hostile work environment by itself if it is sufficiently serious. For example, if a supervisor groped you or punched you, then this one act might be enough to render your workplace oppressive or abusive.
Interference with Job Performance
Any conduct that sufficiently interferes with your ability to perform your job can create a hostile work environment if it is motivated by a protected characteristic. This is a broad category but could include things like moving you to a different location where it becomes impossible to do your job or giving only you outdated equipment that undermines your performance.
Review the Totality of the Circumstances
As courts continually remind the public, antidiscrimination law is not a general civility code. For these reasons, annoyances, petty slights, and isolated incidents generally do not create a hostile work environment. Nor is your workplace discriminatory if someone is hostile but not motivated by your race, sex, religion, disability, age, etc. A person might engage in bullying behavior, but it is not illegal under anti-discrimination law.
Often, offensive and threatening speech or conduct do not exist in isolation. A person who uses an offensive epithet probably contributes to an offensive environment in other ways. To check whether you have a valid claim, schedule a consultation with the Workplace Rights Law Group. One of our attorneys will go through the events that have led up to this point and analyze whether you have sufficient proof that the environment is offensive, hostile, or oppressive.
Complaining about a Hostile Work Environment
If someone uses offensive or demeaning speech, or if they engage in offensive touching, you should tell them to stop. Immediately after, write down the time and location of the incident and whether anyone witnessed it. You might need this information later. If possible, have another coworker witness you telling the offender to stop harassing you.
If you hope to hold your employer accountable for the hostile work environment, then you should tell them about it so that they can fix it. Read your employee manual or contact Human Resources to ask who you should speak to. Fully document that you have complained about the offensive conduct and follow up to see if anything has been done about it. If your employer has notice of the harassment but does not stop it, then you can also hold them legally responsible as well.
The key to a hostile workplace lawsuit is documentation. Harassed employees should communicate mostly in writing or email so that they have a paper copy. They should also fully document any phone conversations or conversations held in person by summarizing the contents and noting the date and time.
Hire a California Employment Discrimination Lawyer to Protect Your Rights
Over the years, we have seen too many employees afraid to stand up for themselves because they do not believe they can hold an employer accountable for a hostile work environment. Even though anti-discrimination laws have been on the books for decades, many employees suffer in silence or quit their job out of frustration.
Workplace harassment is illegal, and you should not be afraid to stand up for yourself. If you are suffering harassment, then chances are someone else is suffering, too. At the Workplace Rights Law Group, our team of attorneys can help you get the compensation you deserve for putting up with oppressive, intimidating employers. To schedule your free, no-obligation case review, please call 818-844-5200 or submit our contact form.