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Employment law and the employees they’re designed to protect often view the concept of a hostile work environment differently. From an employee’s perspective, any environment that makes it difficult or impossible to work or that affects job performance can seem hostile. From a legal perspective, however, an unbearable work environment may offer no actionable, legal options for relief.
Although example situations can help you understand what might constitute a hostile environment, employment laws are technical and full of additional considerations. Consult an employment attorney if you have questions or think you might have a hostile environment case.
Illegal vs. “Legal” Hostile Environment
Differences of opinion about what constitutes hostile environment most often come not from the broader part of the legal definition but from the narrower, second part. The first part says that hostile behaviors must be severe and pervasive enough to create an offensive, intimidating or oppressive atmosphere, while the narrower, second part says that hostile behaviors must also violate your civil rights as a protected class or your right to engage in protected activities.
An illegal hostile environment starts with relentless and inescapable offensive conduct that focuses on sex, gender, age, a disability or a medical condition, religion and race or ethnicity. To be illegal, the conduct must also be directed at you or a specific group of employees.
Federal employment laws do not consider minor, isolated incidents; casual teasing; or careless or rude comments in a hostile environment definition. A manager who acts like an “equal opportunity jerk” to everyone, in the words of Falls Legal LLC, a Charleston, South Carolina, employment law firm, is usually not guilty of creating a legally hostile work environment no matter how rude or crass he might be.
Common behaviors include harassment, retaliation and unfairness or bad treatment intended to “encourage” you to quit.
Examples of a hostile environment based on sexual harassment include a manager threatening your job if you refuse sexual advances or a manager or co-worker making offensive sexual comments about you in your presence. According to the Broderick Saleen Law Firm, a pattern of sexual favoritism directed at a group of employees may also create a hostile work environment if the message conveyed by management is that sex is a way to get ahead in the workplace.
Other examples of a hostile environment based on harassment include being continually subjected to slurs, insults, offensive jokes or comments based on your race, age, disability, religious affiliation or national origin.
Employment laws protect you from retaliation that takes the form of unfair treatment, intimidation and harassment for engaging in protected activities that you do or help a co-worker do. These include such activities as reporting a safety or ethics violation, refusing to join a union, requesting an accommodation for a disability, refusing to violate a law or taking earned vacation time.
Actions can include outright termination or constructive discharge -- actions designed to force you to quit; or they can be a demotion or denial of a pay increase or job promotion. Conduct can include any adverse change in your working conditions or the conditions of your employment. For example, if a more rigorous standard is applied to your work performance compared to that of your peers until it seems that quitting your job is the only reasonable action you can take, this mistreatment is considered constructive discharge.