What Is a Hostile Work Environment?

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A depressed woman sitting in a modern office
A depressed woman sitting in a modern office (Image: LDProd/iStock/Getty Images)

The words “hostile work environment” strike dread in the hearts of most business owners. You certainly wouldn’t want your workplace saddled with such a tag and the legal ramifications that come along with it. Both federal and state laws cover issues of harassment and discrimination in the workplace and, by extension, hostile work environments. This can create some confusion, so if you have reason to believe an employee is being harassed, speak with a local attorney so you understand your responsibilities.

The Definition of Hostile

One or more of your employees must be suffering abuse on a regular basis before it rises to the level of a hostile work environment. General, isolated teasing or joking doesn’t count. The behavior aimed at your troubled employee must be persistent, intentional and hurtful enough that it would cause a reasonable person distress. It must interfere with her ability to perform her job. It doesn’t necessarily have to be verbal -- it might involve repetitive touching, leering or gesturing. It could involve leaving items on her desk or at her work station intended to mock or ridicule her. It could even mean interfering with her work by making off with a completed work product so she can’t turn it in on time. The bottom line is that it causes your employee such stress that going to work becomes an emotional ordeal that she dreads.

Anti-Harassment Laws

Harassment and discrimination statutes and legislation cover hostile work environments. If one of your employees is creating such a situation for another employee, this is harassment and it’s covered by Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The harassment or abuse must be focused on the fact that your employee is a member of a protected class, such as because of her race, gender, religion or a disability. If your workforce is large enough and employs enough people, your business may be subject to Title VII or to your own state’s anti-discrimination and anti-harassment laws.

Quid Pro Quo Harassment

Exchanging advancement opportunities or other work perquisites for tolerance of the abuse is called quid pro quo harassment, and it also creates a hostile work environment. An employee might feel compelled to put up with touching, innuendos or verbal abuse so as to maintain certain workplace perks or even to avoid losing a job she can’t afford to lose. Quid pro quo harassment is covered by federal and most states’ statutes.

Imputed Harassment

Imputed harassment means you may be responsible for the hostile work environment even if you don’t know what’s going on. This might be the case if you don’t maintain your own office on the premises where your worker is employed. If the individual tormenting your employee is a manager or her supervisor, responsibility for his actions transfers to you as the business owner. However, the employee claiming a hostile work environment also has a duty to report what’s going on, either to you or to another superior.

Possible Repercussions

If your employee complains to you or to someone else with authority in your workplace, and if the hostile work environment isn’t resolved, she can file a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission or your state’s employment commission. She also has the option of filing a civil lawsuit against you. But if she doesn’t first alert you to the situation, she may not have a legal basis for suing you.

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