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Hostile work environment

What is a hostile work environment?

A hostile work environment is a situation where:

  • You are subjected to verbal comments, physical contact, or intimidation based on your race, color, gender, religion, disability, age, or national origin.
  • This conduct is unwelcome.
  • This conduct is severe enough to alter your employment environment to the point where it becomes abusive or hostile.
  • You perceived the environment to be abusive or hostile.
  • A reasonable person would perceive the environment as abusive or hostile.

A single case of discrimination or harassment does not create a hostile work environment. For the environment to be hostile, the circumstances must include more than a few isolated cases and must usually involve more than one person.

Certain states recognize additional protected classes. For instance, New York includes gender identity, sexual orientation, pregnancy, and credit history.

What is a “reasonable person”?

Many employment laws mention a “reasonable person.” This refers to a hypothetical person with normal judgment for their demographic. In other words, would the average person consider the workplace hostile?

Are hostile work environments, discrimination, and harassment the same thing?

Harassment and discrimination are often a product of a hostile work environment, but they’re separate violations of your civil rights. A person can harass or discriminate against you without making your workplace hostile. For instance, if a supervisor denies your application for a promotion based on your gender, you’ve suffered discrimination, but the supervisor’s behavior hasn’t necessarily created a hostile work environment.

How severe does the harassment have to be?

To meet the definition of a hostile work environment, the harassment must be “frequent, severe, and pervasive.” This means that the harassment must happen often and to extremes. This description might seem vague, but it refers to the “reasonable person” described above. If a reasonable person wouldn’t consider it pervasive or severe, neither will the legal system.

Additionally, the harassment or discrimination must interfere with your ability to do your job. For instance, you might find it impossible to take required breaks, enter a particular part of the workplace, gain promotions, or even go to work at all.

What you can do as a victim of a hostile work environment

A hostile work environment can make going to work unbearable, and even put your physical well-being at risk. Knowing how to recognize such an environment will help you protect yourself as well as your fellow employees.

How can you respond to a hostile work environment?

If you feel that you are working in a hostile environment, you have three basic options:

  1. Complain to your employer
  2. File a complaint with the state or federal government
  3. File a lawsuit

You don’t have to pick just one, but you’ll want to make a plan for how you’ll approach your situation. You might want to consult an attorney to help you decide how to proceed.

Complaining to your employer

If you suspect that your work environment might be hostile, you can complain to your employer. This is the best course of action if you’re not sure whether the harassment has created a hostile environment, or if you believe your employer can resolve the situation. 

Your first step is to find out who handles workplace harassment and discrimination claims at your company. In a small company, the appropriate individual might be the business owner or a supervising manager. However, larger firms tend to have dedicated human resources departments.

Provide your employer with any evidence you have collected about the abuse, such as audio recordings of verbal abuse (if legal in your state) or examples of written abuse that you have saved. You can also show your own documentation of each incident if you have recorded dates, times, and details for them.

Some companies might have specific forms to fill out if you feel you’re the target of abuse, harassment, or discrimination. You might need to confront the responsible party with your manager or HR representative, or follow other necessary steps laid out in your employer’s harassment policy. Telling the offenders that the behavior is unacceptable puts them on notice about the abuse.

Filing a federal or state complaint

Hostile work environment laws give you the right to file an EEOC (Equal Employment Opportunity Commission) complaint against your employer. In most cases, this is the step to take if your employer failed to resolve the situation and the abuse continues. 

It’s essential to act quickly, because you only have 180 days from the date of the harassment to file an EEOC complaint. You can report the hostile work environment directly to the EEOC, or to one of your state’s Fair Employment Practices Agencies (FEPAs). A FEPA complaint might be addressed faster because it’s a smaller organization with fewer cases to handle. Additionally, many FEPAs automatically file cross complaints with the EEOC.

After you file the complaint, either the EEOC or the FEPA (or both) will investigate your allegations. You’ll receive a charge number so you can reference the case when you communicate with the organization.

An EEOC or FEPA investigation can take many paths and might include:

  • Interviews with the employer and other employees
  • Collection of documents (such as in-house complaints)
  • Mediation between employer and employees
  • Issue of a Notice of Right to Sue (the organization giving you permission to file a hostile work environment lawsuit on your own)
  • Dismissal of charges if the organization doesn’t find a violation

EEOC and FEPA investigations can take anywhere from a few days to several months. If the organization dismisses the charges or finds a violation, it will notify you. Regardless of the outcome, your employer cannot retaliate against you for making the complaint.

Filing a lawsuit

You might decide to file a lawsuit if you can’t get relief through complaints to your employer or to the EEOC. A hostile work environment lawsuit requires you to present your case in court. If the judge or jury finds that you are the victim of a hostile work environment, you might receive compensation from your employer.

Both state and federal courts can hear hostile work environment lawsuits. If your claim is based on a protected class that is unique to your state, you’ll have to file in state court. Otherwise, you can turn to the federal court system, which might offer faster resolutions thanks to lower docket numbers.

To succeed in court, you must prove that your employer knew about the hostility in the workplace and failed to remedy it. This carries a high standard of proof, so you’ll need to review your evidence to determine whether you have enough to convince a judge or jury.

While you can always file a lawsuit on your own, hiring an attorney will put you in a better position to win your case. A labor attorney might:

  • Review your evidence and let you know if it’s strong enough for court
  • Hire investigators or other third-party experts to gather evidence
  • Present your case in court
  • Negotiate for a settlement if applicable
  • Prepare your testimony and that of your witnesses

If you decide to settle your case, you and your employer come to an agreement outside of court. However, if your case goes to trial, the judge’s or jury’s verdict will determine the monetary award, if any, from your employer.

Hiring an attorney

You might benefit from an employment lawyer even if you don’t intend to sue. A lawyer can help you file an EEOC complaint or advise you about making complaints to your employer. 

Make sure your lawyer has experience with labor law, discrimination, harassment, and hostile work environments. You should also ask how the law firm charges its clients so you’ll be prepared for the bill. Attorneys can charge on contingency, which means that they only collect money if you win your case, or at an hourly rate, which means you pay for every hour worked.

You might have to pay a consultation fee and other expenses as your case progresses. Every lawyer establishes a unique billing structure, so you might see modified contingency billing procedures and other variations. A contingency agreement is more likely if you have a strong case.

Living with a hostile work environment can cause significant damage to your professional and personal life. If you think that you’re the victim of such an environment, contact an attorney and follow the steps outlined above to protect your rights. Even if your experience doesn’t rise to the level of “hostile,” filing a complaint can correct poor behavior in the workplace.

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