Hostile Work Environment Law & Related Topics

Definition Of A Hostile Work Environment: What Are The Exact Rules?

The phrase “hostile work environment” seems self-explanatory but in the legal sense, there are some conditions that must be met before the commencement of any litigation that will consider the claims of a complainant as harassment. A definition of hostile work environment here, will thus be in order.

In general, a hostile work environment ensues when there is discriminatory conduct or behavior in the place of work that is unwelcome and offensive to an employee or group of employees based on a protected class status.

What does this mean? In litigation, the complainant must be a member of a protected class under that state’s law (women, disabled, and a specific race) and the complaint should pertain directly to perceived discrimination that specifically targets that class. For instance, a boss who yells all the time may cause an intimidating or stressful work environment but as long as he does this in a general manner and refrains from making any discriminatory statements about a particular protected class, then he is not subject to harassment suits. He may be liable for other charges, however, such as intentional infliction of emotional distress.

It is important to note further that the conduct or behavior must be pervasive and constitute a pattern rather than consist of one or two isolated incidents. Occasional teasing and offhand comments, which some may find offensive, do not qualify as harassment, nor does a single incident constitute a hostile work environment.

An exception to the above definition is a case of sexual harassment primarily indicating an unwelcome physical behavior of a person in authority towards a subordinate. It would be reasonable to assume that this will instantly alter the work environment of the subordinate, and refusal to submit would result in negative employment effects. However, there must be some tangible evidence to support this as well as any other type of harassment complaint.

Another requirement is that the pattern of behavior has to be of a degree severe enough to cause disruption beyond a reasonable degree in the work of the targeted employee such as when he becomes disturbed because of intimidation or due to fear of loss of employment. The complainant must have reason to believe that such behavior patterns are likely to continue indefinitely. The rule elaborates that the conduct may be verbal or physical in nature

While there are no references to federal hostile work environment laws, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and other federal laws on age discrimination and disabilities discrimination embodies the prohibition of creating a hostile environment for certain protected classes. These include but are not limited to discrimination based on:

  • Race
  • Ethnicity
  • Religion
  • Disability
  • Age
  • Sex
  • Color

The Equal Opportunity Commission (EEOC) is the initial recourse for discrimination cases in the private sector. There are also Fair Labor Practices agencies specific to states that may also handle complaints. On the other hand, the two agencies may decide to handle certain cases jointly. In either case, the purpose of these two types of redress is to ensure that the complaint has reasonable grounds before it is brought to court.

The EEOC statistics show that of the complaints filed between 1997 and 2006, between 41% and 47% of all cases were dismissed because of lack of reasonable grounds. While it is unknown what portion of those dismissed complaints are due to a misinterpretation of what constitutes a hostile work environment, it would be reasonable to assume that this would be a significant portion. Based on the conditions for filing harassment complaints, a viable legal definition of hostile work environment applies.

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