If you’ve worked long enough, you’ve heard your fair share of workplace horror stories—the demeaning Miranda Priestly-esque boss, the manager who always cracks lewd jokes, the colleagues who act like schoolyard bullies.
These are all classic signs of what California law calls a hostile work environment. And according to a study by Rand Corp., Harvard Medical School, and the University of California, there’s a 1 in 5 chance you’re working in one.
But ask anyone who’s tried to sue such a workplace and you’ll realize that things are not always so clear-cut.
Defining a hostile work environment
Part of the challenge of defining a hostile work environment is that “hostile” can be very subjective. What one employee considers hostile, another can find merely aggravating.
However, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) states that a workplace is deemed hostile if bosses and colleagues behave in a discriminatory manner. That is, there is a pervasive culture of discrimination against someone because of their race, religion, political beliefs, gender identity, age, nationality, and disability, among others.
Moreover, accepting this discriminatory behavior must be a condition for keeping the job, making targeted employees feel uncomfortable but trapped. Because they constantly feel intimidated, workers may struggle to fulfill their duties or are forced to just quit altogether.
It’s all about unwelcome behavior
In an office where dozens of people must work together, personality conflicts are bound to arise. However, if your colleague’s behavior is unwelcome and persistent, you may be dealing with a toxic work environment. Typical examples of unwelcome behaviors include:
- Sexual harassment: Sexual harassment in the workplace is unacceptable and makes working in any office that much harder. This indicates discrimination because a colleague feels your sex or gender is inferior, which is why they treat you as an object or demean you. Such behavior is often observed among bosses and their subordinates.
- Racial discrimination: Workers should be evaluated according to their skills and qualifications, not their race or nationality. If you observe that you are treated differently, demeaned, or not given the same opportunities because of the color of your skin, you may be dealing with a hostile environment.
- Aggressive treatment: Tempers can flare in the office—especially in high-stress jobs—but if shouting and cajoling is a day-to-day reality, it creates a culture of fear. If employees feel like they’re walking on eggshells all the time, it becomes almost impossible to do their jobs.
- Ridicule: Teasing between co-workers is normal, but if the jokes border on ridicule it can constitute unwelcome behavior. Harsh jokes or pranks that are meant to publicly humiliate a specific colleague is bullying behavior that no company should tolerate.
Co-workers sometimes make an insensitive remark or cruel joke, but in most cases the appropriate action is to file an HR complaint—not to sue your company for having a hostile work environment.
If these conditions exist on top of the discriminatory and unwelcome behavior, however, you might have a strong case for hostile environment harassment:
- Consistent and pervasive: Is the offending behavior an isolated event or a part of your daily work life? If you observe that unwelcome actions are done consistently and by more than one person (especially by company leaders), your office might indeed have a hostile work environment.
- Disruptive: Severity is, of course, subjective but one measure is whether your colleague’s behavior prevents you from doing your job properly. For example, bosses may tune out your business plans and reports because of your race or nationality. Circumstances can also be considered severe if you cannot get promoted simply because you’re a woman or an African-American.
- Lack of action: HR departments are supposed to look after employees’ welfare, but in a dysfunctional office they often get co-opted into protecting the company’s interests instead. That’s why no matter how many complaints you file, they refuse to take appropriate action.
What can you do?
As mentioned above, the first step should always be to report discriminatory and unwelcome behavior to your supervisor or human resources. If that fails to effect change, your other recourse would be to sue your employer.
Be sure to gather as much proof as you can to establish the hostility of your workplace. This includes documenting discriminatory or derogatory remarks sent to you via email, text, or voicemail. You should also present proof that you reported your grievances but that management did not address them.
To bolster your chances of success, you should also hire a law firm like Hogue & Belong, APC that specializes in such cases. To know about your legal options, call 619.238.4720 or send an email to inquiries(at)hoguebelonglaw(dotted)com.