When the workplace atmosphere becomes toxic, it can be one of the worst experiences on earth, especially for workers craving a truly productive environment. When we consider that we spend a large portion of our time at work, it is easy to see that a workplace environment that is free of hostility and harassment is a highly valuable one. The law designates certain rights to employees for the purpose of maintaining a safe and harassment-free workplace through Title VII of the Civil Rights Act.

Title VII prohibits harassment in the workplace and provides remedies for employees who successfully claim workplace harassment or a hostile work environment. However, many workers may not know the exact requirements under the law necessary to prove unlawful workplace harassment. For those who feel their workplace atmosphere has become completely toxic, here are several factors to consider for proving a hostile work environment.

What is a hostile work environment?

A hostile work environment can be defined in two contexts. One of these is the context of sexual harassment. In fact, the hostile work environment rubric arose from early cases involving sexual harassment that did not necessarily involve customary sexual harassment also known as quid pro quo sexual harassment. Quid pro quo sexual harassment involves  conditioning employment, or basing employment decisions on, the performance of sexual favors or meeting sexual demands.

Courts needed a way to address sexual harassment that did not necessarily involve sexual demands as conditions placed on employment but still came as a form of unreasonable interference with the performance of job duties.  Thus, the legal category of hostile environment sexual harassment was born.

Soon after, the hostile work environment claim came to be applied outside the context of sexual harassment cases. Courts began to recognize that an employer could experience behaviors at work based on discriminatory conduct that had the effect of interfering with job duties or that generally created a hostile work environment.

Thus, a hostile work environment is a form of employment discrimination involving harassment that impedes an employee’s ability to perform job duties or has the effect of creating an abusive work environment.

Hostile Work Environment and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act prohibits discrimination in the workplace in all terms and conditions of employment. This means that a hostile work environment that is truly hostile as defined under the law could get an employer into trouble. That’s because when discrimination gets so severe and pervasive that it begins to negatively affect the job environment, it is up to the employer to stop it. When an employer fails to take action against it, that employer could be held legally responsible.

This means employers have a duty to maintain a workplace free of harassment based on race, color, religion, national origin, sex, age and disability. An employer that is aware of harassing conduct, but fails to take reasonable steps to address it could be held liable in a court of law for violation of Title VII or other state employment discrimination laws.

Essential Ways to Prove Hostile Work Environment

Proving a hostile work environment goes beyond simply claiming that the atmosphere at your job is toxic or intolerable. Instead, courts concentrate on whether the harassing behavior or conduct of an employee is sufficiently severe or pervasive to warrant liability. For this, several elements of the alleged conduct must be proven.

First, the person involved in the hostility must be considered a supervisor or manager in order for the company to be held liable. This requires that the individual work in a capacity that entails some level of control or authority over the workers. If not, and the responsible individual is a co-worker or customer, an employee must be able to demonstrate that the company had some level of control or authority over him or her.

Important Hostile Work Environment Criteria

Next, the analysis must focus on the behavior or conduct in question. The criteria for analyzing harassing conduct hinges on a number of factors. The conduct must have: 1) the effect of creating a hostile, intimidating or offensive work environment 2) the effect of interfering with the performance of job duties 3) or otherwise negatively affect job opportunities.

The main question here is, was the activity so severe and pervasive to the point that it interfered with the employee’s ability to perform his or her job or other job opportunities? This means that the behavior was not simply occasional and sporadic or even isolated in occurrence. (However, courts are at least open to the consideration that even a single event could be sufficiently severe or pervasive to warrant liability.)

Rather, it should be the kind of conduct that a reasonable person would find so offensive that he or she could not complete job duties. In courts, the analysis will be completed from the perspective of those of the same race, color, national origin, religion, age, sex or disabled condition as the employee alleging the abuse.

Locate An Employment Rights Attorney Who Will Fight For Your rights

The social climate at your place of employment may be it is important to note that knowing your rights is key. As a U.S. worker, you have a right to work in an environment free from discrimination and harassment related to that discrimination.

Your race, color, national origin, age, sex, religion or disability should not be used as grounds for unfair treatment. When it is and you feel the atmosphere at your workplace has become so toxic that you cannot perform your job duties, contact a competent employment rights attorney who will fight for your rights and get the justice you deserve.