Lots of people call me saying they are experiencing a hostile work environment. They claim that their boss is a jerk and that he yells at everybody and everybody is really stressed out. Most of the time, these people are disappointed to hear that their boss is not doing anything illegal.

A hostile work environment exists when an employee experiences workplace harassment and fears going to work because of the offensive, intimidating, or oppressive atmosphere generated by the harasser. The United States Supreme Court stated in Oncale v. Sundowner Offshore Services, that Title VII is “not a general civility code." Thus, federal law does not prohibit simple teasing, offhand comments, or isolated incidents that are not extremely serious. Rather, the conduct must be so objectively offensive as to alter the conditions of the individual's employment. The conditions of employment are altered only if the harassment culminates in a tangible employment action, or are sufficiently severe or pervasive.

In California, a hostile work environment occurs where speech or conduct is “severe or pervasive" enough to create a hostile or abusive work environment. It is a legal term of art. It is more than a boss being rude, annoying, or yelling. In order to be actionable, the severe, or pervasive speech, or conduct must be directed at someone on the basis of some protected class. Think about a boss making fun of somebody with a disability, or telling sexist or racist jokes. If it’s severe or pervasive enough, then you have a hostile work environment. But, the “equal opportunity, Type ‘A’, rules with an iron-fist" boss isn’t necessarily doing anything illegal. Nonetheless, you should look for a discrimination lawyer if ever you feel you are being harassed, or discriminated, against at work. An experienced discrimination lawyer can help protect your rights and maybe even protect you from such abusive behavior. They can definitely help you build a discrimination case. They can even save you from needing a wrongful termination lawyer.

John McCarthy is a San Diego employment lawyer handling wrongful termination, discrimination, and wage and hourissues. He counsels, and represents employees, and writes a California Employment Law Blog.