What is the Definition of a Hostile Work Environment?
Is being rude and abrasive at work against the law?
In most cases, the answer is obviously no. There are no legal standards that govern workplace civility.
However, there are some exceptions. For example, what if someone’s hostility is directed only toward women or people of a certain race? That sort of behavior may create a hostile work environment and in some cases, it may be unlawful.
In general, a hostile work environment is one in which discrimination or harassment is so severe that it changes the terms and conditions of a person’s or a group of people’s employment.
Elements of a hostile work environment include:
- Discrimination based on religion, age, race, sex or disability.
- Intimidating environment
- Offensive behavior
- Physical or mental abuse
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Now, let’s take a closer look at three signs that may indicate that you’re working in a hostile work environment.
What behavior constitutes a hostile work environment in New York State?
To prove a hostile work environment, you must be able to show you were targeted because of your inclusion in a protected class.
Protected classes may pertain to:
- national origin
- genetic information
- sexual orientation
What are considered criteria for a hostile work environment?
As we mentioned before, a hostile work environment requires behavior that is more than just rude. That is, the behavior must be so severe and pervasive that it interferes with your ability to do your job. For example:
- The behavior involves discrimination on things such as gender, race, etc. Sexual harassment may be included in this.
- Any person that is considered reasonable and rational would find the behavior to be offensive or hostile.
- The conduct is ongoing, meaning it is occurring more than once.
You must make a complaint
One key element to proving a hostile work environment is that your employer should have an opportunity to remedy the situation.
That means you have to speak up about what’s happening. File a complaint with your human resources department or your supervisor. If you have a company handbook, be sure to follow the procedures for making a complaint.
If the complaint is not addressed or is inadequately addressed, you should speak to an employment law attorney about your rights.
Am I Experiencing a “Hostile Environment” At Work?
A difficult work environment can be incredibly challenging for anyone. It can impact how you work and how you feel about going into work.
The law, however, does not require that an employer provide a pleasant work environment. To the contrary, employment is generally “at will,” which means that an employer can take any action it wants without having to show a good reason, or even giving a reason.
The law only gets involved when an employer’s actions are motivated by discrimination against a “protected category.” Protected categories include age, race, gender, sexual orientation and identity, religion, disability, national origin, marital status, caregiver status and veteran status.
Accordingly, there is only a legal claim for a “hostile environment” when the hostility is motivated by a protected category. Indeed, the phrase “hostile work environment” itself was intended to recognize that someone can be discriminated against even if they are not fired, not to create a prohibition against a bully of a boss.
Here are some points you should consider when exploring whether or not you are being subjected to the legal definition of a “hostile work environment”:
- Is my boss being rude and abrasive at work towards everyone, or just towards me and others in my protected category?
- Am I seeing general unfairness in the workplace, including nepotism and favoritism, or is it that certain categories of employees receive preferential or unfavorable treatment?
- Are there comments that relate to protected categories, including comments about race, age or gender? For example, have I heard comments critical of women who become pregnant, or older workers for purportedly being slow?
- It is just one comment that I think is a stray remark, or is the hostility part of a larger pattern I am experiencing?
- Is my employer only hiring people outside of my protected category, or getting rid of people in my protected category?
- Is my boss just uncivil, or is discrimination the real reason for what is happening?
In short, you should ask yourself, “Do I think the hostility in my workplace is connected to a protected category?” If so, you should contact an attorney to ask what your rights might be. The attorneys at Schwartz Perry & Heller will be happy to speak with you in a confidential, free consultation to explore whether you might have a case.
Contact us for a consultation now
If you believe that you’re being subjected to a hostile work environment, it’s a good idea to seek out legal representation.
Call or contact us online today to discuss your unique situation.
For further reading, visit Basic Elements of an Employment Discrimination Claim.