Employers have a duty to prevent and remedy toxic work environments, which are workplaces where harassment and inappropriate behavior run rampant, distracting victims from doing their jobs.
What is an Illegal Toxic Work Environment?
There is no legal claim for "toxic" work environments. However, state and federal law prohibit hostile work environments and require employers to remedy them.
To bring a legal claim for a hostile work environment, the harassment or discrimination must be so severe and pervasive that the victim considers it abusive and a reasonable person in the victim’s shoes would consider it abusive. The offensive conduct must substantially disrupt an employee’s work or career progress. Isolated or occasional comments and actions will likely not qualify unless they are especially serious. Typically, the inappropriate behavior must persist over time in order to be illegal. If the company does not stop the misconduct, this can also create liability for the employer.
The offensive behavior must also be targeted at a specific, protected class. The California Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA) protects individuals based on the following actual or perceived characteristics: race, color, ancestry, national origin, religion, creed, age (40+), disability, sex/gender (including pregnancy), sexual orientation, gender identity/expression, medical condition, genetic information, marital status, and military/veteran status. Similar categories are protected under federal law and the laws of other states.
Anything less than repeated, abusive behavior directed at people because of specific, protected characteristics can be an undesirable, unpleasant, or unsatisfactory place to work, but it probably does not qualify as a “hostile work environment” under California law.
Examples of hostile work environments and conduct that can create hostile work environments in California include:
Sexual Harassment based on Sex/Gender, Sexual Orientation, or Gender Identity/Expression
Hostile work environments in California often refer to workplaces where sexual harassment is common and employers do nothing to stop it.
Behaviors contributing to these kind of hostile work environments often include: actual or attempted assault; touching, rubbing, cornering, hugging, leaning over; following or standing too close; sexual comments, jokes, or stories; using rude or insulting language; turning work conversations into sexual conversations; asking about sexual history, preferences, fantasies, personal life; whistling or cat calling; looking a person up and down, staring; suggestive gestures like winking, blowing kisses, licking lips; requests or pressure for sexual favors or dates; quid pro quo offers (using power or position to coerce someone into sexual favors); and sabotaging an employee’s work or career for sex/gender-related reasons or because of rejection.
Discriminatory Harassment based on Any Other Protected Characteristic
Any person can face discriminatory harassment based on one of their actual or perceived personal characteristics. If the harassment is so severe that the person considers it abusive, then it could be a hostile work environment.
Conduct that tends to contribute to this kind of hostile work environment includes: making inappropriate jokes and comments; using offensive language and slurs; name-calling; mocking and teasing certain characteristics or workers; sending or showing offensive imagery, social media posts, news articles, etc.; talking in stereotypes; making inappropriate gestures; giving overly harsh criticism; demeaning or insulting certain workers or ascribing only them negative attributes; avoiding socializing or working with certain employees; spreading harmful rumors; and sabotaging an employee’s work or career because of an employee’s protected characteristic.
Bullying Based on Any Protected Characteristic
Hostile work environments can also arise from severe bullying. When coworkers or superiors physically abuse (e.g. touch, hit, shove, trip, corner, block, or play extreme and unwanted pranks), threaten (verbally, by gesture, impliedly), or emotionally abuse (e.g. yell, insult, demean, spread rumors, cyberbully), the victim might be enduring a hostile work environment.
Talk to an Experienced Employment Lawyer Today
At King & Siegel LLP, we have helped hundreds of workers hold employers accountable through legal actions. If you believe you have been subjected to a hostile work environment, our attorneys are here to help.
Need legal help? We provide free, confidential consultations to California workers. You should contact us as soon as possible to make sure your claim is still within the time limits set by law. If you have experienced discrimination or harassment that you think might contribute to a hostile work environment, contact us today through our website or give us a call at (213) 214-3757 to schedule a free consultation.