What Constitutes a Hostile Work Environment?
| Read Time: 4 minutes | Workplace Safety

“Hostile work environment” is a commonly misunderstood term. Many employees know that offensive and abusive behavior in the workplace isn’t okay. However, few fully understand what makes a hostile atmosphere cross the line from inappropriate to illegal. In reality, “hostile work environment” is the name for a specific type of workplace bullying that’s illegal under state and federal law. 

This blog post will give employees an overview of what constitutes a hostile work environment in legal terms. We’ll also look at hostile work environment warning signs and explain how to get help if your rights have been violated.

What Makes a Hostile Work Environment Illegal?

Many people use the word “hostile” generally to describe a work atmosphere that’s unpleasant, toxic, or aggressive.  

However, the legal hostile work environment definition is more specific. According to California law, hostile work environments specifically involve offensive behavior targeted at a characteristic or trait protected under state anti-discrimination law, e.g., gender, race, religion, sexual orientation, etc. 

For mistreatment to create a hostile work environment, the law also requires that the behavior:

  • Is severe enough that a reasonable person would find it offensive or abusive;
  • Happens consistently, not just once; and
  • Prevents an employee from performing their normal job duties.

Behavior that’s simply annoying, isolated, or not aimed at a protected class isn’t likely to qualify as a violation of your rights as an employee.  

What Does a Hostile Work Environment Look Like?

Hostile work environments can be produced by many different factors and behaviors. Here are some general hostile work environment examples:

  • A majority-male team frequently tells sexually explicit stories that make their female coworkers uncomfortable,
  • An employee sabotages the work of colleagues who belong to an ethnic minority,
  • A young shift manager repeatedly calls an older employee “grandma” and badgers her about her age, and
  • An organization’s vice president regularly shares racist jokes during company meetings.  

Hostile work environments can appear in many different ways beyond these examples. If you’re unsure if someone’s offensive behavior crosses the line to hostile, it’s best to consult with an employment attorney for clarification.

What Causes a Hostile Work Environment?

Anyone can perpetrate or contribute to a hostile work environment. This includes colleagues, third-party contractors, and customers, as well as supervisors and executives. 

Every work environment is made up of individual people with different dynamics and different ideas about what is and isn’t offensive. An atmosphere that one person may consider competitive and jocular might feel abusive and intimidating to someone else. 

Not all toxic jobs meet the legal definition of hostile work environments. A workplace can involve behavior that is disrespectful, demeaning, and aggressive without violating anyone’s rights. Unless this mistreatment targets an employee’s race, sex, religion, or other protected characteristic, the law won’t step in. However, even if not illegal, disrespect and bullying in the workplace aren’t ideal.

Letting this toxic behavior flourish can hurt employee productivity and a company’s reputation. It also risks paving the way for potential legal problems in the future if a legitimate hostile work environment case develops.

What Can I Do About a Hostile Work Environment?

When dealing with a hostile work environment, you should first report it to your company’s human resources department. This can be nerve-wracking if the source of the harassment is a manager or superior. But it’s important that your employer knows about what’s happening. Under California law, employers are required to take immediate action to curb any harassment or targeted misconduct that happens on the job.

Hopefully, your employer will quickly correct the inappropriate behavior. If they don’t, you can file a complaint with California’s Civil Rights Department. They will investigate the situation and try to resolve it. Once you’ve filed your claim, you also have the option of bringing a civil lawsuit against your employer. With the help of an employment lawyer in Los Angeles, employees who are successful in a hostile work environment lawsuit can recover financial damages for what they’ve suffered.

If you think you have a hostile work environment claim, it’s a good idea to get in touch with an employment attorney as soon as possible. Employees have a three-year time limit to file hostile work environment complaints. If you miss that deadline, you could miss out on your window for legal action.

How Can I Prove My Workplace Is a Hostile Environment?

To prove a hostile work environment claim, you have to provide evidence that the behavior you experienced wasn’t just annoying but targeted and pervasive enough that it affected your job.

Four main factors determine whether misconduct is considered hostile:

  • How often the inappropriate behavior occurred,
  • Whether you were targeted because of your protected status,
  • The type of behavior that offended you, and
  • Whether a reasonable person would think the work environment was hostile.

To demonstrate that your workplace meets these requirements, it’s essential to have documented proof of what you experienced. Evidence of a hostile work environment can include:

  • Emails, text messages, voicemails, or written communications;
  • Photos of offensive images or drawings; 
  • Names and contact details of witnesses who observed the offensive behavior; and
  • Records of your complaint and communication with human resources.

Even if you’re unsure whether you have a case, it’s important to document as much as you can until you can speak to a lawyer. The more information you have, the better an attorney can assess your situation and help you understand your options moving forward.

Schedule a Free Hostile Work Environment Consultation Today

If you’re facing inappropriate behavior in your workplace, you don’t have to suffer in silence. King & Siegel LLP was founded to help empower employees to exercise their legal rights and combat workplace abuse. In the years since our founding, our award-winning lawyers have helped dozens of Californians understand what constitutes a hostile work environment and how to take the steps to rectify it.

We pride ourselves on providing employees with personalized, aggressive representation that leads to results—totaling millions of dollars in compensation won for clients. Call our office or contact us online to speak to an attorney today about your case.

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Julian Burns King graduated with honors from Harvard Law School and founded King & Siegel in 2018. As head of the Firm’s discrimination and harassment practice areas, she champions the rights of working parents and victims of workplace discrimination and harassment. She has been recognized as a “Rising Star” by Super Lawyers annually since 2018 and has recovered tens of millions of dollars on behalf of her clients.

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