Can You Sue Your Boss for Being a Bully? What You Need to Know about Hostile Work Environments
There may be legal protection from certain types of behavior
You’d hope that treating people with respect on the job would be a no-brainer. Unfortunately, that’s not always the case.
Working under a boss who has a short fuse can be emotionally exhausting. Beyond that, having to report to such a stressful environment every day can affect your productivity and performance.
We can probably all agree that bullying behavior can be damaging to the work environment, but you may be wondering if certain conduct is also unlawful. Let’s discuss what the law says about hostile work environments.
What does “hostile work environment” mean?
At first glance, it may seem like a term with a lot of gray area. After all, what may seem “hostile” to one person may be a non-issue to someone else.
Yelling, screaming, engaging in loud rants, and exhibiting similar behaviors are usually not in violation of any laws when taken by themselves.
However, Title VII of the U.S. Civil Rights Act of 1964—the law that pertains to most forms of workplace discrimination or harassment—provides a framework for when rude behavior crosses the line into unlawful territory.
In general, three key elements may indicate that a work environment is hostile:
- Comments or actions that target people in various “protected” categories or classes
- Behavior that is so extreme that it changes the terms and conditions of a person’s or a group of people’s employment
- Behavior that is unwelcome, e.g., the employee or employees may have complained about the situation, but nothing was done
Let’s dig in to each of these elements a little further.
Federal law prohibits discrimination based on certain “protected classes.” These include race/color, religion, sex (including pregnancy), national origin, age (people age 40 or older), disability, or genetic information. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission recently added sexual orientation to that list as well.
To prove a hostile work environment, an employee must be able to show that he or she was targeted because of his or her inclusion in a protected class.
What this might look like on the job: A supervisor goes on frequent tirades that include racial slurs or derogatory comments about women or certain religious groups.
More than unpleasant
The second criterion requires that the offender’s behavior significantly and negatively impact working conditions.
Key: The behavior must so severe and pervasive that it interferes with an individual’s ability to do his or her job or that it prevents the person from moving ahead in his or her career.
That means one isolated incident is often not enough to prove a hostile work environment.
What this might look like on the job: Repeated incidents in which an employee in a protected class is belittled, ridiculed, set up to fail, or prevented from completing some aspect of his or her job.
The law is clear that employers should have an opportunity to remedy a hostile work situation before a worker is allowed to sue.
While that doesn’t necessarily mean that employees have to make formal complaints about a situation, targeted individuals must have let a company representative know that a situation was offensive.
What this might look like on the job: The targeted employee may have complained—either verbally or in writing—to Human Resources, his or her supervisor, or another manager.
What it means to you
No one should have to dread going to work every day.
If you believe that you’re being subjected to a hostile work environment and your complaints have fallen on deaf ears, it’s a good idea to speak to an attorney to find out about your rights.Call or email us today to discuss your unique situation.