Employees should feel safe and comfortable at their place of employment, but unfortunately, some employees feel extremely uncomfortable or intimidated at work. There is a fundamental, but subtle, legal distinction between actionable workplace harassment and mere coarse joking – the latter can be infuriating, but unfortunately not compensable.
The following discusses some of the most commonly asked questions about the concept of a hostile work environment.
What is a hostile work environment?
A hostile work environment is created by unrelenting and unwelcome harassment by a colleague, supervisor, manager, or subordinate. In determining whether a work environment is hostile, courts commonly consider the following factors.
- Whether an employee feels he or she needs to endure the offensive comments or jokes to keep her job.
- Whether a reasonable person would consider the conduct intimidating or abusive.
Repetitive discriminatory jokes, sexually suggestive emails, or threatening and intimidating behavior can all possibly constitute actionable workplace harassment. By contrast, the law does not usually recognize “petty slights,” annoying conduct, or certain isolated incidents to be within the purview of anti-discrimination protections.
For example, if a manager makes a sexually suggestive comment to a female employee once, it is unlikely that the environment is hostile. However, if the manager repeatedly makes sexually suggestive comments about the female employee and she believes she must endure these jokes or comments to keep her job, the manager is likely subjecting the female employee to a hostile work environment.
Where did the term ‘hostile work environment’ come from?
As modern labor laws evolved over the past several decades, courts began to recognize the severely distressing phenomenon of workplace discrimination. While there is no official statute outlawing a “hostile work environment”, this term has developed over the years as an extension of anti-discrimination statutes – namely those based on the following personal characteristics.
- Sex (including pregnancy)
- National origin
- Age (40 and older)
- Genetic information
Workplace harassment is unlawful under acts such as the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 (ADEA), and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
How does an employee report a hostile work environment?
The first step in remedying a hostile work environment is reporting the abusive behavior to a supervisor or manager, who will hopefully discipline and reprimand the responsible parties. If that proves futile, the next step may be for the victim to file a complaint with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) or a similar state agency.
Once filed, the EEOC or state agency will launch an investigation into the matter. An investigator will review both the nature of the conduct and the context of the alleged incidents.
Contact an employment attorney in Ohio today
If you are facing a difficult work environment, or believe your employer may be allowing the growth of a hostile work environment, call Robert A. Klingler Co., L.P.A. at 513-665-9500 or fill out our online contact form today.