What is a Hostile Work Environment?

If your boss is rude to you, your coworker has annoying habits, or the expectations of your job are impossible to meet, you might consider yourself to work in a hostile environment. While it might be difficult to face certain circumstances each day at work, such circumstances will not necessarily create a hostile work environment for the purposes of employment law. In order to have the right to take legal action, a hostile work environment must meet specific criteria under the law.

Unlawful Workplace Harassment

Most people are aware that sexual harassment – along with other types of harassment – is a serious problem in today’s workforce. However, many employees have difficulty identifying exactly when unlawful harassment happens to them. Some people might overestimate their legal rights if a coworker makes an obnoxious comment, while others might not realize they are working in a hostile environment daily due to offensive comments based on certain factors.

In order for harassment to be unlawful, the first requirement under state and federal law is that the harassment is based on one or more protected factors under the law. In California, these are as follows:

  • Sex and gender
  • Marital status
  • Pregnancy or childbirth (and related issues)
  • Gender identity or expression
  • Sexual orientation
  • Religion and creed
  • Race and color
  • Ancestry and national origin
  • Mental or physical disabilities
  • Genetic information
  • Age (if you are over 40)
  • Medical conditions
  • Military or veteran status

If a coworker teases you about a shirt you are wearing (that has no particular meaning), it might be hurtful and annoying, though it likely is not unlawful harassment. On the other hand, if your clothing is religious or ethnic garb, and your coworker ridicules you for those reasons, it can be considered to be unlawful. However, in most cases, in order for harassment to rise to an illegal level, it must create a hostile work environment.

Legal Requirements of a Hostile Work Environment

The following are some requirements for a situation to be considered a hostile work environment and give and employee the right to take legal action:

  • The conduct must be discriminatory based on a protected factor such as sex, race, disability, or others
  • In most cases, the conduct must be continued and pervasive over time. One discriminatory comment is usually not enough to create a hostile work environment
  • If certain conduct is so offensive, a single incident might create a hostile work environment
  • The conduct disrupts an employee’s ability to do their job or it interferes with their job or progress in their career (i.e., the employee did not receive a deserved raise or promotion due to the conduct)

If the above are true, and the employer had notice of the problem and took insufficient action to make it stop, the employee can take legal action to hold their employer liable for failing to address the matter and allowing the hostile work environment to persist. Always speak with an employment lawyer if you believe you were subject to a hostile work environment.

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