What behaviors are considered criteria for a hostile work environment? What happens if you have to work every day in a hostile environment – can you make it stop, or do you have to quit your job? This guide explains.
What Behaviors Are Considered Criteria for a Hostile Work Environment?
Several behaviors can meet the criteria for a hostile work environment, but the key is that those behaviors are pervasive, severe and persistent enough to disrupt the victim’s work. However, only some types of harassment qualify as creating an unlawfully hostile work environment. The behavior must be based on discrimination against a person’s:
- Gender or sexual orientation
- Genetic information
- National origin
- Pregnancy status or associated conditions
Someone repeatedly saying you’re too old to perform a job, making racist jokes or poking fun at you because of your religious beliefs are all examples of things that can create an unlawfully hostile work environment.
Specific Behaviors That Meet the Criteria for Creating a Hostile Work Environment
Some of the behaviors that meet the criteria for creating a hostile work environment include:
- Offensive jokes
- Offensive objects or pictures
- Physical assaults
- Ridicule or mockery
Remember, though, that the behavior must be severe, pervasive and persistent enough to disrupt your work. One racist joke doesn’t necessarily make an unlawfully hostile work environment (although it’s inexcusable and will make any reasonable person feel uncomfortable). However, a racist joke combined with poor treatment that can be attributed to racism can create an unlawfully hostile work environment.
Although some behaviors are unprofessional and can make you feel badly about yourself, not all types of harassment are technically illegal or create an unlawfully hostile work environment. That means if someone picks on you because you’re short, because you have blond hair or because you wear glasses, you’re not likely to win a lawsuit. It’s certainly not nice to be made fun of for a personal characteristic, and your workplace may indeed be very hostile, but in order to win a case in court, the harassment must be related to a protected class (such as age, disability, race or religion).
How Can You Gauge Whether the Behavior Creates a Hostile Work Environment?
Under the law, a “reasonable person” would have to find the behavior abusive or hostile. That means if you’re extremely sensitive, you may find something abusive or hostile that many other people don’t. For example, if your employer says to you, “I just don’t understand your religion,” that’s probably not something a reasonable person would find hostile or abusive. However, if your employer said, “Your religion is stupid and nobody should be part of it,” that’s another story. Still, though, the behavior must be pervasive and severe enough to disrupt your work. Generally speaking, a one-time incident – unless it’s severe (such as a sexual assault) – is not enough to create a hostile work environment.
Who Can Be Guilty of Creating a Hostile Work Environment?
Harassers can be:
- The victim’s supervisor
- A supervisor in another area
- An agent of the employer
- A co-worker
- A non-employee
The victim doesn’t have to be the person harassed, either. Anyone who is affected by the offensive conduct can be a victim.
It’s also important to note that a hostile work environment can be present even if the victim isn’t fired from the job or doesn’t suffer financial losses.
Who Gets in Trouble for Workplace Harassment?
The employer is, in most cases, liable for harassment. Here’s what to know:
- The employer is automatically liable when the harasser is a supervisor and the harassment results in a negative employment action.
- The employer is usually liable if the harasser is a supervisor and the harassment creates a hostile work environment. However, the employer can try to prove that it corrected the harassing behavior and reasonably tried to prevent it, and that the employee unreasonably failed to take advantage of preventive or corrective opportunities the employer provided.
- The employer can be held liable for harassment by non-supervisory employees or non-employees over whom it has control (such as independent contractors and customers) if the employer knew or should’ve known about the harassment and failed to act.
Employers can fire employees for harassing another person, as well.
Do You Need to Talk to an Attorney About Behaviors That Meet the Criteria for Creating a Hostile Work Environment?
If you’re working in a hostile work environment, or if you have worked in one and no longer do, we may be able to help you. Call us at 818-230-8380 or fill out the form below to speak with a qualified, caring and compassionate professional now.