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What Constitutes a Hostile Work Environment?

When a boss, manager, supervisor or co-worker’s actions or words create a harassing atmosphere that makes you uncomfortable, you may be subject to a hostile work environment and your employer could be held liable under civil rights laws protecting employees from a hostile workplace.

According to California law, a “hostile work environment” is one in which there is inappropriate behavior present in the workplace that is either pervasive or severe to the point that one or more employees finds it abusive or feels threatened. This is considered workplace harassment and is prohibited under California’s Fair Employment and Housing Act.

Hostile workplace laws and provisions are the result of a number of cases which recognize that the law must step in to prevent employers from misusing their authority in the workplace to create an environment that is discriminatory and egregious enough to interfere with an employee’s ability to perform his or her job.

There is never any excuse for an employer creating a hostile work environment or failing to prevent a hostile work environment for employees. If you have been a victim of workplace harassment or feel uncomfortable, oppressed, or afraid to show up for work, a hostile work environment attorney at Shegerian & Associates will protect your rights to compensation and safety.

Types of Hostile Work Environments

A hostile work environment can be considered workplace bullying, which can become a form of workplace harassment. “Harassment,” standing alone, is not illegal. Illegal harassment in the workplace is considered against the law when the individual is harassed because of a protected trait, and the harassment is either pervasive or severe. In this scenario, the individual could seek legal aid from a work harassment lawyer to prove their case.

According to California’s hostile work environment (HWE) laws, the following are protected characteristics:

  • Sex
  • Gender
  • Race
  • Ethnicity
  • Color
  • National origin
  • Religion
  • Ancestry
  • Physical or mental disability

In short, the employer cannot harass the employee because of a protected characteristic. But, an employer can legally harass an employee because the employer just does not like the employee. This is due to the fact that there is no law against general “harassment” or bad treatment of an employee.

A hostile workplace can arise in a variety of forms. The most common types of hostile work environment scenarios stem from the following:

Sexual Harassment

When an employer’s speech or conduct pertaining to the sex of an employee becomes so severe or pervasive that it prevents her from carrying out job duties, courts may find that the employer is liable for creating a discriminatory hostile work environment involving sexual harassment. Some signs of sexual harassment include:

  • Telling sexually explicit jokes
  • Making unwanted comments about an employee’s body or appearance
  • Vulgar remarks about gender or sexual orientation
  • Unwelcome touching
  • Repeatedly asking an employee out on dates when they have already said no
  • Sending photos of nude people

Racial Harassment

Actions that could be deemed racial harassment are if a manager or co-worker uses racially derogatory terms, tells offensive jokes pertaining to race, or displays racially-offensive symbols. Even if the comments are played off as a joke, they could be deemed racial harassment if the behavior is unwelcome, persistent or severe, and creates a work environment deemed intimidating, hostile, or abusive.

Any Type of Discriminatory Behavior

Both harassment and discrimination are prohibited by the FEHA, however, many employees who are facing unlawful treatment at work often confuse the two. A hostile work environment occurs when a manager or co-worker mistreats another employee based on a protected trait. By contrast, discrimination occurs when a manager or supervisor treats employees differently based on traits or perceived traits and causes differential treatment within job descriptions.

For instance, an employer making sexist comments to a female employee may be considered harassment, but it would be discrimination if that employee was denied a raise or promotion because of her gender.

While discrimination is different from workplace harassment, discrimination may be a sign that there is a hostile work environment as well. Employees can benefit from consulting with a workplace harassment attorney to better discuss and determine a potential case.

  • The elements necessary to prove a hostile workplace involve first showing that the employer has discriminated against the complaining employee based on certain protected categories. These are most often the protected categories listed in Title VII – race, color, national origin, religion, disability and age. However, in California, even workers who are not part of a protected class may be able to file a claim for a hostile work environment if their physical safety was threatened.

    Proving a hostile workplace also involves sufficient evidence of harassment. Courts will not accept HWE claims if the offensive conduct is occasional, isolated, random, or trivial. Instead, they are moved by incidents which are severe or pervasive and that have occurred over time. The behavior may either occur repeatedly or involve a threat to an individual’s safety or well-being. All victims of workplace harassment should preserve all evidence, such as:

    • Recorded communications that show harassment, including texts, emails, or phone call logs
    • Any internal memos or internal documents indicating harassment
    • Video or audio recordings of the unwanted behavior (note that California generally prohibits recording individuals without their consent)
    • Names and contact information of eyewitnesses to the harassment
    • Any correspondence with Human Resources showing any complaints of harassment

    When an employee can show that the harassment is more than off-hand remarks, teasing and rude or crude behavior, a hostile work environment case is more likely to succeed. Whether the harassment is considered to the extent that is meets the criteria for a hostile work environment will be determined by many factors, including:

    • The frequency of the unwelcome behavior
    • The nature and severity of the unwelcome behavior
    • Whether the behavior was physically threatening, humiliating, or demoralizing
    • The effect on the victim’s psychological well-being
    • Whether the perpetrator was a superior within the organization

How To Pursue Legal Action Against for a Hostile Workplace

Harassment in the workplace leading to a hostile work environment can be committed by anyone, not just a manager or someone in a supervisor role. If the harassment was committed by someone in a non-supervisory role, then you may be able to still hold your employer accountable if they behaved negligently.

To be considered negligent, you and your hostile work environment lawyer must be able to show that the employer did not respond as they legally ought to when you reported harassment.

It is also important to note that the complaining employee in a hostile workplace case need not be a direct recipient of harassing behavior. Rather, it is possible for a case to succeed even when the complaining employee only witnesses the behavior or speech and it is so severe and pervasive that the witnessing employee is prevented from performing his or her job. This is because the underlying purpose of anti-harassment laws and provisions is to ensure a safe and productive environment for all U.S. employees.

Another important point concerning the hostile workplace is that in most cases managers, supervisors or other persons who have authority are automatically liable unless they can prove that they did not know or should not have known about the hostility in the workplace.

As for co-workers and others who create hostility in the workplace, an employer could be held liable for their actions as well if an employee successfully shows that the employer knew or should have known about the harassment which created the environment.

Overcoming a Hostile Work Environment

A hostile work environment makes it extremely difficult for workers to perform their duties and should not be tolerated. Workers should be aware that they have a right to a work environment free from unlawful hostility and harassment, and that right is protected under federal and state law.

If you’re looking for a California workplace harassment lawyer, contact Shegerian & Associates today for a consultation. We can provide a workplace harassment lawyer with trustworthy experience handling hostile workplace cases and who is willing to devote the time and commitment necessary to resolve your issue successfully.

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