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What Is A Hostile Work Environment?


Neither you nor anybody in your business would ever harass a fellow employee. You know what sexual or racial harassment is, and you don’t use that kind of language, nor do you condone or allow others to use such language.

And then it happens-you are hit with a lawsuit alleging something called a “hostile working environment.” Although you don’t know what that is, you can tell by reading the complaint, it has to do with an employee that feels that he or she was harassed at work. How did this happen?

Hostile Working Environments

In a hostile working environment, an employee claims that the environment at work is discriminatory, or creates an environment that is racist, sexist, or abusive. What makes this claim difficult for employers to understand, is that the aggrieved employee doesn’t have to have been directly insulted or spoken to.

The aggrieved employee doesn’t have to have been directly threatened, or insulted. It is the work environment itself that has been invaded by pervasive racist or sexist comments–sometimes, using language that is common (but still not acceptable) when used outside work. The insulting language doesn’t have to come from a boss or supervisor. In fact, more often, it is co-employees that use language or display pictures that create a hostile working environment.

Hostile Work Environment Example

For example, let’s say that in your office, male employees routinely post pictures of naked women. In the break room, they talk about porn, or use derogatory terms when speaking about women. Your co-workers make jokes about women. A female employee may see this kind of work environment to be hostile, to the point that working for your company becomes impossible, intimidating, hostile, or abusive.

You will note in our example, that no female employee was ever directly spoken to or insulted. In fact, your company may have a solid history of hiring, paying well, and promoting female employees. The male employees making these comments may have been very nice to the female employee.

None of that matters. By allowing words, pictures, and discussions that are insulting, abusive, or intimidating, you have created a work environment that is hostile to the female employee.

Certainly, time to time insults, annoyances or time to time comments, will not be enough to constitute a hostile work environment. The law recognizes that an employer often can’t control everything that comes out of every employee’s mouth.

Avoiding Hostile Working Environment Suits

Employers should take heed of complaints that it may become aware of. If an employee of color complains that other employees are using racial epithets—even if not directed at that employee—an employer should not laugh that off, or dismiss it.

Companies should develop policies and procedures dictating what kind of words, language and behavior are acceptable at work. That includes policies that address posters, photos, or website addresses that can be accessed at work.

Create an environment where aggrieved employees have someone to address their concerns to, without feeling like they will be persecuted for making complaints.

Do you have an employment law problem? Call the West Palm Beach business litigation lawyers at Pike & Lustig to evaluate your employment or workplace discrimination litigation case today.

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