While bad management or rude co-workers may make a workplace uncomfortable, a hostile work environment requires certain characteristics. To meet this bar there must be severe or pervasive harassment. This standard indicates that employees’ discomfort may not always be enough.
Defining Hostile Work Environment
A hostile work environment exists when discriminatory or harassing actions are so severe and pervasive that the actions interfere with the workplace. This could include preventing an individual from performing their job. Alternatively, this could mean that the environment is intimidating, offensive, threatening, or humiliating. This could also entail creating a workplace culture that harms an employee’s psychological well-being.
The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) provided guidance for interpreting hostile work environment since Title VII does not explicitly mention the term. The Supreme Court developed the standard of “totality of circumstances” to apply in these cases. The totality of the circumstances standard applies widely and allows courts to consider a variety of factors.
This standard establishes that one situation may be sufficient to meet the standard while several will not always meet it. A court could consider evidence of various situations to meet the standard. For example, evidence of disparate treatment or retaliation, harassing conduct by non-employees, and evidence of offensive or abusive conduct directed more frequently to a protected group may all reach the standard. Additional evidence to be considered could include evidence of conduct not explicitly based on a protected characteristic such as race or gender but inferred by conduct or evidence of a generally negative work atmosphere.
Common Signs of Hostile Work Environment
The EEOC finds that hostile environments arise most frequently in certain types of employment. For example, restaurants, oil and gas drilling rigs, car dealership, agricultural workspaces, and private prisons all have high frequencies of hostile environments. However, there are other risk factors that can indicate a hostile work environment. For example, male-dominated workplaces or workplaces with a number of vulnerable employees such as undocumented workers or prior abuse survivors have higher rates of hostile environments. Additional indicators include poor training of employees or unclear or ineffective remedial steps and investigations into discriminatory actions.
Potential Employer Solutions
Employers seeking to remedy or prevent a hostile environment can take a couple of different steps. First, ensure that supervisors at all levels especially at the first level receive proper training. This training should teach managers how to spot improper conduct as well as how to take action immediately. Taking on-the-spot action such as correcting an employee’s improper behavior can send a message to employees about the importance of respecting the other employees.
Second, ensure that there is a firm and clear investigation process. The system for remedying discrimination or harassment must be clear and easy to follow. Employees should feel comfortable using the process. Further, the investigations should also effectively address concerns and complaints. The investigation process will be critical to instilling confidence in the employer and remedying workplace hostilities.
Third, create an inclusive environment. Employers should encourage employees to report any inappropriate conduct. Creating an open environment where employees feel comfortable flagging negative experiences will enable employers to more effectively respond.
Finally, there should be discipline for individuals who violate the rules. The punishment needs to clearly inform the employee it is for the harassment. Additionally, the punishment could deter potential future harassers from acting.
Contact an Employment Lawyer
If you are experiencing a hostile work environment, an employment lawyer can help you discover your legal path forward. Contact McOmber McOmber & Luber to discuss your case.