What is a hostile work environment?

What is a hostile work environment

Many workers in the U.S. are members of classes that are protected under the federal and state anti-discrimination laws. Among other prohibited actions, employers are forbidden from creating or allowing a hostile work environment for employees who have certain protected characteristics. What is a hostile work environment? Here is an overview of the law.

Situations That Create Hostile Work Environments

Hostile work environments include the following:

  • When workers are targeted with physical contact, derogatory verbal comments or intimidation because of their color, race, religion, age, gender, disability or national origin; and
  • The actions are unwelcome; and
  • The actions are severe enough to change the work environment to the extent where it is hostile or abusive; and
  • The targeted group perceives the work environment to be hostile or abusive; and
  • A reasonable person would also perceive the work environment to be abusive or hostile.

One incident of harassment or discrimination is not enough to create a work environment that is hostile. Instead, there must be more than a few instances of discriminatory conduct involving multiple offenders.

Defining A Reasonable Person

A reasonable person as defined under the anti-discrimination laws is a person who has a similar judgment as others of their demographics. This means how the average person would view the workplace.

The Difference Between Hostile Work Environments, Harassment And Discrimination

While discrimination and harassment often occur in a hostile work environment, they are distinct violations of civil rights. It is possible for you to be subjected to discrimination or harassment by a person without it making the work environment hostile.

How Severe Does The Discrimination Or Harassment Have To Be?

In order to meet the requirements for a hostile work environment, harassment or discrimination that occurs must be pervasive, severe and frequent through the eyes of a reasonable person as previously defined. The actions must also interfere with your ability to perform the tasks required of you. For example, you might feel unable to go to work, enter certain areas at your workplace, take the breaks that you need or gain promotions.

What You Can Do If You Are A Victim Of A Hostile Work Environment

If your work environment is a hostile one, you can choose to complain to your employer, file a complaint with the state or with the EEOC or file a lawsuit. You might want to talk to an employment law attorney at Swartz Swidler for guidance about how best to proceed in your case.

Complaining To Your Employer

If you are uncertain whether or not a hostile work environment has been created by the harassment that you’ve experienced, or if you think that your employer will be able to resolve the problem, complaining to your employer may be the best choice. You will first need to determine who is responsible for handling discrimination claims at your company. Most large firms have human resources departments that handle such claims.

You will want to give your employer any evidence that you have gathered about the discrimination, including emails, text messages, pictures in common areas or audio recordings. You might also want to show your employer your personal documentation of each separate incident with dates, times and descriptions of what happened. Keep the originals and only provide copies.

Ask your supervisor, the business’s owner or the human resource department about whether or not your company has specific forms that it requires. You may have to confront the harasser together with your supervisor or human resources representative. You may also have to take other steps that are outlined in your company’s harassment policy.

Filing A Federal Or State Complaint

If your work environment is hostile because of prohibited discrimination or harassment, then you can file a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission against your employer. Normally, you would take this step if your employer did not resolve the issue, and you were subjected to continuing abuse.

It is very important for you to act quickly after discrimination has occurred. Under the law, you only have 180 days to file an EEOC complaint from the date of the discriminatory action. Your employment lawyers at Swartz Swidler can help you to take action and file with the EEOC and the relevant state agency to initiate your complaint process within the deadline. After your complaint has been filed, the EEOC or the state will investigate the allegations that you have made.

How A Complaint May Progress

There are several different things that can happen after you file a complaint with the EEOC or your state’s agency, including the following:

  • Your employer and co-workers may be interviewed
  • Documents may be collected
  • Mediation between you and your employer might be scheduled
  • You may receive a notice of your right to sue
  • Your charges may be dismissed if no violation is found

The investigations may take a few days up to several months. If the agency finds a violation or dismisses the charges, you will be notified. No matter what the outcome might be, your employer is forbidden from retaliating against you for filing the complaint.

Filing A Lawsuit

If you are unable to obtain relief through your complaints with your employer or the EEOC, you may file a lawsuit with the state or federal court. If a jury or the judge finds that you were a victim, you may then be able to recover damages. If your claim is based on a class that is protected by your state’s law but not by the federal law, you will need to file your lawsuit in state court. If federal law applies, then you can choose to file your case in federal court.

In order to be successful, you will need to be able to prove that your employer was aware of the hostility and failed to correct it. As this carries a high burden of proof, you may need legal help from the employment lawyers at Swartz Swidler to present your case.

How Our Attorneys Might Help

While you are allowed to file a lawsuit by yourself, retaining an attorney may place you in a better position. Your lawyer may do the following:

  • Evaluate the evidence that you have and let you know whether it’s likely to stand up in court
  • Hire experts and investigators for gathering additional evidence
  • Litigate your case in court
  • Negotiate a settlement
  • Prepare you and your witnesses for testifying

In a settlement, you and your employer reach an out-of-court agreement to settle your case. If your case proceeds to trial, the verdict handed down by the jury or the judge will determine whether you receive compensation and how much it might be. To learn more about what is a hostile work environment and how Swartz Swidler may be able to help you, contact our office today to schedule your consultation.