Federal and California State Laws Protect Employees from Hostile Work Environments
What is an example of a hostile work environment?
The answer(s): it’s not always clear.
California 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, our California employment lawyers review common examples of behavior that may create an unlawful hostile work environment pursuant to Federal and California State laws.
Please don’t hesitate to contact us for immediate assistance.
The words we use carry enormous power.
Many hostile workplaces are rife with offensive or demeaning language, such as:
- Epithets (Peter the Perfect, Cleo the Clueless, etc.),
- Gross generalizations (“all women think that way,” “only a man would say that,” etc.),
- Bigoted jokes,
- Offensive nicknames, and
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 California 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.
While unwanted sexual remarks disrupt many workplaces, 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:
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Our California employment discrimination lawyers have experience helping employees dealing with hostile work environments in California and understand the laws to hold employers accountable.
Sexually-explicit language, even if not intended to demean someone, can also create a hostile work environment.
A workplace can also become hostile based on the following unlawful conduct:
- Displaying sexually suggestive pictures where others can see them,
- Discussing sexual activities with co-workers, and
- Making sexually-suggestive jokes.
It’s important to understand sexual harassment laws in California.
As with epithets and slurs, the indecent behavior identified above can 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
Additionally, any unwelcome touching or gesturing can create a hostile work environment.
The most obvious examples of an unlawful hostile work environment are someone groping an employee or getting into a fistfight with someone because of a protected characteristic, e.g., race, age, religion, etc.
However, any unwelcome contact if motivated by someone’s protected characteristic can create an unlawful 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 California workplace oppressive or abusive.
Interference with Job Performance
Any conduct, that sufficiently interferes with your ability to perform your job can create an unlawful hostile work environment if it is motivated by a protected characteristic.
This is a broad category but could include conduct such as:
- Moving you to a different location where it becomes impossible to do your job.
- Giving you only outdated equipment that undermines your performance.
- Withholding information you need to complete job-related tasks.
Keep in mind that these actions must be motivated by a protected characteristic. An unlawful hostile work environment depends on the intention of the action as well as its consequence.
For instance, let’s say your office simply runs out of space and everyone is moved to crowded working conditions. Even though you may be a minority, this lack of sufficient workspace would not be targeted at you because of your race.
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 laws.
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.
Who Can Create a Hostile Work Environment?
Anyone in a workplace can contribute to an unlawful hostile work environment.
You may have a legal claim if any of these people harass you or regularly make discriminatory remarks:
- A supervisor,
- A co-worker,
- A company executive,
- An employer’s agent,
- A contractor, or
- A regular visitor.
It may be confusing to determine whose actions create legal liability for your employer. Generally, your employer is responsible for the actions of any employee at work or agent representing your employer.
Documenting Evidence for an Unlawful Hostile Work Environment Claim
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 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.
What Legal Remedies Are Available for a Hostile Work Environment?
When you contact our employment attorneys, we can review the circumstances of your case and let you know all available legal options. One option might include filing a claim with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).
You have only 180 days from the employment discrimination to file a claim with the EEOC. The EEOC will investigate and possibly give you a Notice of Right to Sue. Upon receiving that EEOC notice, you have 90 days to file a lawsuit in federal or state court.
According to the EEOC, “Harassment is a form of employment discrimination that violates Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967, (ADEA), and the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, (ADA).”
For some hostile work environment lawsuits, you don’t need an EEOC Notice of Right to Sue. For instance, you can file an age discrimination lawsuit 60 days after filing a complaint with the EEOC. An EEOC Notice of Right to Sue is required for Title VII lawsuits.
Our employment lawyers can help you file an EEOC complaint and determine whether to file a lawsuit against your employer.
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.
California 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 experienced attorneys can help you get the compensation you deserve for putting up with oppressive, intimidating employers.
RECOMMENDED READING: WRONGFUL TERMINATION IN CALIFORNIA
Are you working in a hostile work environment and fear being terminated?
If you are working in a hostile work environment and are afraid of being terminated if you say something read about your employment rights.