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What is a hostile work environment?

On Behalf of | Jan 5, 2024 | Employment Law

A hostile work environment can significantly impact an individual’s job satisfaction, performance, and well-being. It’s characterized by more than just occasional rudeness or isolated incidents. It involves either a particularly egregious scenario or a pattern of behavior that creates an intimidating, offensive or hostile work atmosphere.

Understanding the difference between a challenging workplace and a legally hostile one is essential as an employee. This knowledge can help you to identify when you’re in a situation that may be actionable. Remember, not all unpleasant workplace experiences qualify as a hostile work environment in the legal sense. Seeking legal guidance if you’re unsure of whether your circumstances qualify as “hostile” in this way can be helpful.

What are the legal criteria for a hostile workplace?

Specific legal criteria define a hostile work environment. It typically involves discriminatory behavior based on one of the following:

  • Race
  • Gender
  • Religion
  • National origin
  • Age
  • Disability

If you’re experiencing a hostile work environment, the conduct you’re being exposed to may even be pervasive and severe enough to affect your ability to work. This might include offensive jokes, slurs, epithets, physical threats or unwelcome comments about your protected characteristics.

When does it become a legal issue?

The situation becomes legal when the conduct is so frequent or severe that it creates a work environment that a reasonable person would consider intimidating, hostile or abusive. It’s also illegal if enduring the offensive conduct becomes a condition of continued employment or if the behavior is severe enough to cause a significant change in your employment status.

For example, if you’re consistently subjected to derogatory comments about your religious beliefs, or if your supervisor makes unwelcome sexual advances, these actions could contribute to a hostile work environment. Another scenario could be the display of racist or sexist images in the workplace, making you feel uncomfortable and unwelcome.

What can you do?

If you’re facing such a situation, document the incidents in detail, including dates, times and any witnesses. Report the behavior to your employer, following company policies for such complaints. If the issue isn’t resolved internally, you might consider filing a complaint with the appropriate government agencies and seeking legal guidance about taking legal action. You have rights under the law, but only you can decide whether you want to exercise them or not.