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Even if you are completely satisfied with the actual work that you do, if the environment you work in is negative, hostile or harassing, performing your tasks to the best of your ability is nearly impossible. Establishing that your workplace is unbearable -- whether you’re just looking for improvements so you can continue working or for monetary compensation -- is not always possible, either.
When you’re trying to prove a hostile work environment for the purposes of a lawsuit, or to file for unemployment compensation even though you quit a job, following the proper procedure is of the utmost importance. Speak to an attorney or a representative from your state labor department for advice on how to build your case before you give notice that you intend to quit. An experienced attorney can help you determine what documentation you need for your case and help you get it. If you leave your job before you contact an attorney, getting the proof you need may be impossible.
Proving a hostile or unbearable work environment requires keeping detailed and accurate records of the environment, and steps that you’ve taken to fix the situation. For example, if your boss or a co-worker is consistently verbally abusive, putting an undue burden on you to complete your work, keep a log of the incidents including the date, time and what was said. Take your complaints to human resources or your supervisor and keep records of those meetings and what is said. While your own personal records and observations may not serve as adequate evidence on their own if the case goes to court, being able to demonstrate a pattern can bolster your argument.
Today’s high tech work environments not only increase productivity, but also retains proof of an unbearable work environment. Keep copies of harassing or abusive e-mails, photos or text messages that you receive from co-workers or supervisors. Enlist the help of the IT department to get copies of log-in records, web surfing logs and other electronic communications if necessary; in some cases, you may need to subpoena those records if you cannot legally acquire them yourself. If your workplace uses video surveillance, the video records can also serve as evidence of an unbearable work environment. However, taping a conversation with someone without his knowledge, may be illegal in your state, and doing so anyway can damage your case or get you into legal trouble of your own. Confirm the rules with an attorney or law enforcement before proceeding.
If your work environment is affecting your health, enlist your physician’s help. You must prove that your physical or mental condition was created by your workplace and not a preexisting condition. If you have detailed records from your doctor showing an escalating problem, those records can serve as evidence of an unbearable environment. If you were injured as a result of an assault or other action by a co-worker, get medical attention and file a report with the human resources department and local police. These reports can serve as evidence of an unbearable work environment.
Witnesses can also be valuable in proving an unbearable work environment. If possible, and co-workers are willing, get signed statements from them confirming your claims of a hostile work environment. A credible witness can describe the details of particular incidents that she has seen, corroborate your claims about your behavior and reactions, and provide additional information about things that she has seen or heard regarding your situation. However, some people may be reluctant to provide a statement for fear of retaliation or a desire to stay out of a negative situation.
An adjunct instructor at Central Maine Community College, Kristen Hamlin is also a freelance writer and editor, specializing in careers, business, education, and lifestyle topics. The author of Graduate! Everything You Need to Succeed After College (Capital Books), which covers everything from career and financial advice to furnishing your first apartment, her work has also appeared in Young Money, Lewiston Auburn Magazine, USA Today, and a variety of online outlets. She's also been quoted as a career expert in many newspapers and magazines, including Cosmopolitan and Parade. She has a B.A. in Communication from Stonehill College, and a Master of Liberal Studies in Creative Writing from the University of Denver.