What is a "Hostile Work Environment"?

Hostile Work Environment

Are you unhappy at work, dreading going in every day because you’re finding it more and more difficult to focus on your job? Have you heard the term “hostile work environment” and wonder if that is what you’re experiencing? The truth is, not everyone who is unhappy at work or finding it difficult to get along with their manager or coworkers is the victim of a hostile work environment. A “hostile work environment” is a specific type of employment discrimination claim under federal and state law, and certain legal criteria must be met in order for an employee to claim they’re a victim of a hostile work environment.

I’ll discuss the legal elements of a hostile work environment and give a few examples below. If you believe you’re the victim of a hostile work environment or would like to talk with someone to determine if you have a claim, please contact Eisenberg & Baum. We have a group of very experienced employment discrimination attorneys who are ready to help you understand your claim and advise you of your rights under the law. Though we’re based in New York City, we have attorneys licensed in many states throughout the country and we can also become admitted pro hac vice with local counsel in other states where we are not currently admitted, so we can help no matter where you are.

Hostile Work Environment Elements

In order to prove an employment discrimination claim based on a hostile work environment, you must be able to show that you experienced unwelcome conduct based on a legally protected characteristic and that the conduct was so severe or pervasive it affected the terms of your employment.

Unwelcome Conduct

The conduct you experience at work can be verbal (e.g., offensive jokes), visual (e.g., harassing photos or emails) or physical (e.g., groping or physical confrontation), and can come from any number of sources at your job, including supervisors, coworkers, agents and customers. However, the conduct must be considered unwelcome, meaning that you did not invite or willingly participate in the activity. In the case of a sexual harassment claim, for example, if an employee complained that his co-workers repeatedly told sexual jokes in the office, but the employee himself participated by responding with his own offensive jokes, the employee may have a difficult time proving the conduct was unwelcomed.

Protected Category

In order to be classified as discrimination, the unwelcome conduct must be based on or aimed at a protected characteristic under the law. Under federal law, the protected characteristics include race, color, national origin, gender, pregnancy, age, religion, disability, and genetic information. Many state laws also protect additional categories from discriminatory employment decisions. For example, in New York City employers are prohibited from discriminating against an employee on similar grounds as recognized under federal law as well as sexual orientation, marital status, gender identity, arrest and conviction record, military status or service, observance of Sabbath, political activities, unemployment status, and status as a victim of domestic violence.

Severe or Pervasive

Hostile Work Environment at JobFinally, in order to create a hostile work environment, the conduct must be so severe or pervasive that it affects your job. Typically, an employee would need to show a pattern of harassment to meet this requirement, though in some instances a single act can be severe enough on its own to establish a hostile work environment. For example, a single, isolated instance of a co-worker telling an insulting joke may not be either severe or pervasive enough to establish a hostile work environment, but a single instance of a co-worker physically coercing an employee to participate in sexual conduct could be seen as so severe that the conduct, on its own, created a hostile work environment.

Examples of Hostile Work Environments

The courts are filled with examples of successful employment discrimination claims by employees who have been subjected to a hostile work environment. The first type of discrimination claim many people associate with a hostile work environment is sexual harassment. The case of Robinson v. Jacksonville Shipyards, Inc., decided by a Florida federal court in 1991, presented what could be considered a textbook case of sexual harassment leading to a hostile work environment. In that case, Lois Robinson, a woman who worked as a welder in a shipping yard, was subjected to repeated sexual conduct by male co-workers, including posting of nude photos of women throughout the workplace, writing obscene graffiti in the workplace, as well as calling Robinson derogatory names and making sexually explicit remarks to her. Although Robinson complained to her management, very little was done to respond to her complaint. The federal court found in Robinson’s favor based on the hostile work environment theory.

Sexual harassment is not the only type of discrimination claim under which the hostile work environment theory has been used. As I noted above, conduct aimed at any protected class under the law can create a hostile work environment. For example, in the 2013 New York federal court case of Turley v. ISG Lackawanna, Inc., Elijah Turley, an African-American steel plant worker, claimed he was the subject of racial discrimination at his job. According to Turley, he complained about a manager’s discriminatory actions back in 2005, and soon after complaining, found himself the subject of discriminatory conduct by a number of his co-workers. His co-workers’ conduct ranged from the use of racial epithets and graffiti all the way up to death threats. Like Lois Robinson, Turley complained about the conduct to his management with little response. Turley sued his employer arguing that the repeated racially-motivated conduct had created a hostile work environment, and a jury found in his favor, awarding him compensatory and punitive damages.

Get Legal Help

If you’re being subjected to discriminatory conduct at work that’s affecting your ability to do your job, you can take action to stop it. We recommend reporting the conduct to your employer as soon as possible and contacting an attorney to help you understand your rights under federal and state law. Eisenberg & Baum is ready and able to help you understand the law behind hostile work environment and other employment discrimination claims, and we encourage you to contact us for a free initial consultation. For employment discrimination and retaliation cases, we bill on a contingent fee basis, so you won’t have to pay us unless we win your case.

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