Most everyone has dealt with a boss that was difficult to work for. If your boss has a short temper and yells a lot, it’s safe to say that you are in an unpleasant work situation. No one should have to deal with that kind of treatment at their place of employment.
You may be wondering if you have a legal claim against your employer. The short answer is “it depends.” Unfortunately, in most instances of an unpleasant boss, there is no legal basis to bring a claim.
A “hostile work environment” is a term that is often loosely interpreted. It is a common misconception that a generally unpleasant work environment is associated with a hostile work environment. While a mean boss is unpleasant, to say the least, it does not meet the legal definition.
Even though your boss’s behavior might not be illegal, it is important to understand that it is still not acceptable. Consider speaking to a higher-level individual about your boss’s conduct in the workplace. The more people that are willing to complain along with you, the stronger your complaint will be. If the company is made aware of your boss’s bad behavior, they will have a more invested interest in keeping the employees that they have. A good company will step up and take some sort of action to calm things down, whether that’s firing the individual or giving them an ultimatum.
There are some cases of bad behavior that are illegal. Let’s look further at what constitutes an illegal hostile work environment.
What is an illegal hostile work environment?
It is difficult to say what exactly makes up an illegal hostile work environment, as the legality of the matter can be subjective when put in front of a judge. When trying a case in court, the argument must be very fact-specific. The harasser rarely ever admits the wrongdoing, so the judge must evaluate all facts surrounding the case to determine whether the behavior in question is illegal or not.
Winning cases typically meet one or more of the following behaviors:
- discriminatory behavior
- severe behavior
- pervasive behavior
- unwelcome behavior
Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 offers protections to employees based on protected characteristics. Specifically, it prohibits employers from discriminating against employees on the basis of:
- national origin
If your boss is specifically targeting you because of your race, color, religion, sex, or national origin, then you should contact an experienced employment attorney immediately. Yelling may be legal, but discriminatory yelling certainly is not. The discriminatory factor itself creates a hostile atmosphere, resulting in the employee feeling unsafe and disrespected by their employer.
All employers who have 15 or more employees are subject to Title VII laws. However, these laws do not apply to small businesses with 14 or fewer employees, Native American tribes, private member clubs that are exempt from paying taxes, and employers of foreign nationals outside of the United States.
The severity of the harassment plays a big role in determining whether the behavior is subject to legal action. The harassers’ actions, behavior, or communications must be so severe that they have an effect on the employees’ job performance. This could even cause the employee to avoid work, call in sick or underperform from the heightened stress.
The severity of a situation can be subjective. However, one sure fact is that the law doesn’t protect against occasional teasing, blunt comments, and one-time isolated incidents.
For most harassment claims establishing a hostile work environment to be illegal, it must first establish the pervasiveness. Courts tend to look at the situation as a whole. In order for the behavior to be considered harassment, the behavior must have occurred over a significant period of time. One instance of bad behavior does not constitute a hostile work environment. The combined actions, comments, and behavior of the employer must be so harassive and disruptive that it affects the employees’ ability to work.
Another area that courts look at is whether the behavior is unwelcomed or not. The employee should ask the harasser to stop their behavior. If the bad behavior continues, there should be some sort of proof that the employee documented the continued harassment with the HR department. It is also very important to document (write down) every instance of harassment that you face.
According to a recent study, more than 20% of employees have been subjected to a hostile work environment. This could extend to sexual harassment, verbal abuse, threats, and bullying. Here are some common forms of harassment that can contribute to a hostile work environment:
- Telling off-color jokes regarding a protected class
- Talking about sexual acts or using sexually suggestive language
- Displaying pictures that are racist
- Using racial slurs
- Unwelcomed touching
Before you can bring a lawsuit against your employer, you must first file a charge with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). The EEOC is the administrative agency that oversees these kinds of workplace claims. If you file a lawsuit without filing a charge with the EEOC, then your case will be thrown out.
Once the charge is filed, the EEOC will review the facts and make its decision. Some claims are denied. If they feel that the claim has merit, they will issue a right to sue letter at which time you are authorized to file a suit in court.
If you have been dealing with a hostile work environment and are getting nowhere, it is time to consult an attorney. An experienced employment attorney can help you file your claim with the EEOC and in court, as well as explore possible settlement options. The attorneys at Swartz Swidler, LLC, are here to fight for your rights. Fill out the contact form today and we will get back to you as soon as possible.