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What is a Hostile Work Environment?

Not every workplace that is unpleasant is hostile. In order for a workplace to qualify as hostile, there must be certain types of harassment that are defined as unlawful. Often, people tend to equate hostile work environments with sexual harassment. While sexual harassment in the work environment does qualify as hostile work environment harassment, there are many other types of harassment that fall into the category as well.

In order for actions in the workplace to be considered hostile, it meets one or more of these legal requirements:

There are Discriminatory Actions or Behaviors Against Protected Groups

The behaviors, actions or comments of an individual cannot just be annoying. In order for the actions to be legally hostile, the actions or comments must be discriminatory in nature based off of age, race, gender, sex, disability, religion, or sexuality. If you are being harassed based on any of these categories, it’s important for you to know that it is unlawful. Additionally, it’s important for all employees to know what to avoid discussing in the workplace. When in doubt, don’t crack jokes about age, race, gender, or any other protected categories. These jokes aren’t just distasteful. They are harassing.

There is Pervasive and/or Long-Lasting Behavior or Communication

A few distasteful remarks won’t necessarily be deemed hostile work environment harassment, although they are frowned upon. These types of discriminatory behaviors become hostile when they are repeated over time and targeted at individuals or groups. The easiest example is when an individual is being targeted and sexually harassed, but this can apply to other types of harassment as well. However, some single-time instances can be severe enough by themselves to qualify as a hostile work environment. A few jokes are not pervasive, but physical force, for instance, is severe enough for immediate action to be taken legally or by the employer.

The Behaviors, Actions, and Communications are Severe Enough to Disrupt the Colleague’s Work

When an employee cannot complete the work nor do their job well because of harassment in the work environment, it’s problematic. This is why harassment, particularly in the workplace, is so important. The legal pursuit typically has to do with the fact that hostile work environments can deny people opportunities within the workplace.

If the Employer Knew About the Hostile Behavior and Did Not Respond Appropriately, the Employer Can Also be Liable for Hostile Work Environment Harassment

If an employer knows about workplace harassment and fails to do anything, the company itself can get into a lot of trouble. Typically, small harassment claims will be handled within the business and can be dealt with by your Human Resources Professionals. When an employer fails to do anything, however, employees can take legal pursuits. This is why it’s important to know your rights as an individual and also to know what kind of actions toward your colleagues that you should avoid taking in the workplace.

Last Updated: April 15, 2015