What is a Hostile Work Environment?

Legal Article

What is a Hostile Work Environment?

The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) defines the legal term “hostile work environment” as “unwelcome conduct that is based on race, color, religion, sex (including pregnancy), national origin, age (40 or older), disability or genetic information.” The EEOC definition means that behavior, actions, or communication must be discriminatory in nature.

Thus, teasing, yelling, or isolated incidents—unless extremely serious—are not considered harassment. While these acts may create a toxic work environment, it does not meet the legal definition of a hostile one. A toxic work environment is never good, however, you are typically only able to take legal action from teasing or other verbal abuse if you are part of a protected class. Finally, though issues such as weight or appearance are not in any of the protected classes, if this verbal abuse is severe enough, you may still be able to bring forth a lawsuit.

Conduct that represents harassment:

  • Consistently disciplining an employee more harshly than other employees on account of race, color, religion, sex, national origin, or age;
  • Discussing sex acts or using sexually suggestive language;
  • Inappropriate sexual touching;
  • Racist or otherwise offensive jokes;
  • A boss taunting an employee for their religious beliefs;
  • Consistently using highly insensitive language;
  • Making unwanted comments about someone’s appearance;
  • And more.

Conduct that does not represent harassment:

  • A coworker who is rude or passive aggressive:
  • A supervisor who doesn’t take your ideas seriously:
  • A manager who yells constantly and sets unattainable goals or deadlines (with no underlying discrimination).

Is a Hostile Work Environment Illegal?

Workplace harassment is illegal if the person bringing the claim (1) reasonably believes that enduring the offensive conduct is a condition of continued employment or (2) if the conduct is severe or pervasive enough to create an intimidating, hostile, or abusive work environment to the reasonable person. One important note is that if an employee dealing with harassment knows that they could report the conduct to human resources and the conduct would stop, they would be less likely to win in a lawsuit.

Many people think that work place harassment is a federal law. Instead, harassment is a form of employment discrimination that violates Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Only protected classes can file a charge of discrimination under Title VII. Before going to court, an employee looking to file a lawsuit must report their case with the EEOC. If the EEOC investigates and decides not to pursue the case any further, the EEOC can issue a “right to sue” letter to the employee that they can use to file a case in federal court within 90 days of the date of the letter. 

Another important note is that you typically only have 180 days to file a complaint with the EEOC after a given incident. However, in some cases, you will have 300 days to file a complaint.

The EEOC also makes it illegal for a reported employer to retaliate against an individual as payback for their reporting of the employer’s improper behavior. This could be by firing, demoting, additional harassing, or other forms of retaliation.

Employer’s Defense to Hostile Work Environment

Most employer’s strongest defenses of a hostile work environment claim is the Faragher-Ellerth defense. The Faragher-Ellerth defense requires the employer to prove that (1) they took all reasonable preventative and corrective measures to remedy the harassment; and (2) the plaintiff unreasonably failed to take advantage of the employer’s harassment complaint reporting procedure set out in the employer’s anti-harassment policies.

Additionally, the employer must have in place an effective anti-harassment policy and complaint reporting procedure to be considered preventative.

Contact Our DC Law Office for More Information

Finally, for more information on what is a hostile work environment, contact us at 202-803-5676. You can also directly schedule a consultation with one of our skilled attorneys. Additionally, for general information regarding business law, check out our blog.