It is not unusual for a worker to express concerns about their work environment. An employee may feel uncomfortable about certain aspects of their job, including co-workers and managers. However, only certain behaviors are deemed illegal at work. For example, it is not against the law to yell in workplaces, even if it seems inappropriate.
To be considered as workplace harassment, the mistreatment must interfere with the worker’s ability to perform their work. When the issues at work cross the line from minor annoyances to serious infractions, they may qualify as hostile.
Even though there are federal and state employment laws that set the parameters for hostile work environments, many employees in these situations fear speaking up against employers. Most of the time, victims do not file claims because they worry about retaliation.
Unwelcome actions, harassment, and other discriminatory behaviors can all contribute to hostile workplace environments. Examples include using insensitive terms and slurs, making religious or racist jokes, sexual remarks or advances, and even physical assaults.
What is a Hostile Work Environment?
A hostile work environment is defined as unwelcome or offensive behavior in the workplace, which causes employees to feel uncomfortable, scared, or even intimidated. It is marked by communications and actions from co-workers, supervisors, vendors, and clients that make the workplace uncomfortable for others. Employees who face this kind of treatment feel disrespected and unsafe at work.
There are federal and state laws in place to protect employees from this kind of mistreatment. It is also against the law for workers and companies to retaliate against employees who report hostile workplace environments. If a worker experiences retaliation in the workplace, they should contact a lawyer.
What is Workplace Harassment?
Harassment is a form of employment discrimination, which violates:
- Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, but there are some exceptions, including small business with 14 or fewer employers. There is a statute of limitations of up to 180 days for filing Title VII claims with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).
- The Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 (ADEA).
- The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990.
The EEOC deems behaviors illegal when employers create environments that are offensive, discriminatory, hostile, or intimidating. According to the law in Pennsylvania, this kind of conduct can constitute a hostile work environment.
When is Offensive Behavior Illegal?
Socially unacceptable behavior may be offensive, but it does not always qualify as harassment or hostile. Also, some workers may misinterpret comments or actions. Here are some of the legal requirements that must be met for a situation to qualify as a hostile work environment:
- The behaviors must discriminate against one or more protected classifications.
- The behavior must be frequent and long term. A few disrespectful remarks or actions by colleagues are not enough to fall under the hostile workplace category. More isolated incidents should be reported to the Human Resources (HR) department.
- The hostile communications and actions must be serious enough to disrupt the employee’s capacity to perform their work.
- When the harassment is long term and not looked into and addressed appropriately by the employer, the company may be held responsible for creating the hostile environment. There have been cases where employers are aware of the behaviors but do not take steps to intervene.
The harasser can be a manager, co-worker, a supervisor from another area in the company, a non-employee, or an agent of the employer. The victim can be the one being directly harassed, or anyone else who is adversely affected by the offensive behavior. This unlawful harassment can happen without economic injury or termination of the victim.
When Should I Speak to My Employer About the Harassment?
Companies are encouraged to protect and stop unlawful harassment and need to communicate to their employees that this kind of conduct is unacceptable. Many provide anti-harassment training and have established company-wide complaint processes.
It is not always easy for victims to confront their harassers, and their reactions may be unpredictable. It may be better to seek out a supervisor or a HR staff member to discuss the problem when it is in its early stages to prevent further escalation.
Before initiating a conversation, it is a good idea to have some kind of evidence, such as emails, texts, and corroboration from colleagues. This makes the employer aware of what is going on, and it gives them the chance to investigate and eliminate the inappropriate behaviors.
Once the employer is informed about the problem, the next step is up to them. This kind of harassment is often seen as grounds for termination.
When Should I Take Legal Action Against My Employer?
An employee might want to sue their employer for creating a hostile work environment. To determine if the work environment is hostile, it must be established that the conduct did actually occur and that it was based on a legally protected characteristic. An individual or employer can be held responsible for the actions; in some cases, both parties may be held accountable.
To build a case, an experienced employment discrimination lawyer will start by looking at the frequency and severity of the actions. They will also see if the behaviors were humiliating and physically threatening. The harasser’s actions must also unreasonably impede the victim’s job performance.
Plaintiffs will also need to prove that the conduct would not have occurred without the existence of a legally protected characteristic. It is only considered a hostile work environment if the hostility targets someone based on one or more protected characteristics.
When is an Employer Liable for a Hostile Work Environment?
According to the EEOC, if a supervisor’s harassing behaviors cause a hostile work environment, the employer may be liable. This will depend on whether or not they tried to stop and promptly fix the behavior. It will also be contingent on the victim’s actions; if they unreasonably failed to utilize any preventive or corrective opportunities offered by the employer, the company might not be held liable. It must be shown that the employer knew, or should have known, of the harassment but failed to take time to correct actions.
The EEOC will look at this kind of conduct as well as context. Each case is investigated separately to establish if the harassment was severe enough to be illegal. Proving that a workplace is hostile is often difficult, so it is important for a harassed worker to contact a lawyer right away.
Bucks County Employment Discrimination Lawyers at Sidney L. Gold & Associates, P.C. Help Employees in Hostile Workplace Environments
Any kind of workplace discrimination and harassment is unacceptable, but when the environment becomes hostile, it is also against the law. It is not always easy to determine if unwelcomed actions are illegal or not. To see if your workplace qualifies as a hostile environment, reach out to one of our compassionate Bucks County employment discrimination lawyers at Sidney L. Gold & Associates, P.C. Call us at 215-569-1999 or complete our online form for a free consultation today. Located in Philadelphia and Pennsauken, New Jersey, we proudly serve clients throughout South Jersey and southeastern Pennsylvania, including Wilkes-Barre, Scranton, northeast Philadelphia, Bucks County, Chester County, Delaware County, and Montgomery County.