Hostile work environments don’t have to be the norm in today’s workplace. Tough civil rights laws were designed to protect workers from harassment and hostility in the workplace and to put employers on notice about the dangers, risks and consequences of allowing such environments to continue. Employees cannot be intimidated or coerced into accepting conditions at work that courts have deemed hostile according to the law.

When workers find themselves in hostile work environments a central question arises, “What should I do?” The stakes are high for employees who complain, especially if the employer has turned a blind eye to the conditions over time. Still, employees have the right to address the legality of their working conditions and could have a legal refuge within the law if their employer knows about the harassment, but does nothing to prevent it, or decides to retaliate.

What Constitutes a Hostile Work Environment According to the Law?

Though many work environments may seem subjectively hostile, the legal definition rules out many claims. This is because the law is based on a ‘reasonable person’ standard and uses several legal elements to define a hostile work environment.

A hostile work environment consists of more than random and inconsistent off-color remarks that an individual finds offensive or annoying. Isolated remarks or actions rarely meet the standards established by harassment and hostile environment laws. Instead, the actions or words which create the environment should be sufficiently severe and pervasive enough to cause an employee and (a reasonable person) disruptions at work over time.

Also, the conduct or speech should discriminate against an employee on the basis of one or more of the protected categories noted in Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 or other state civil rights laws. These categories include race, color, age, sex, national origin, religion, or disability or sexual orientation.

Thus, a hostile work environment is one involving speech or conduct that is severe and pervasive enough to consistently interfere with an employee’s ability to perform at work. These conditions are growing in prevalence across America. According to a recent survey by the Workplace Bullying Institute, 27 percent of Americans have experienced abusive conduct at work and another 21% have witnessed it.

Actual cases illustrate best how courts interpret the law here. In a recent San Antonio, TX case, a federal jury awarded $200,000 to three employees who claimed a hostile work environment prevented them from carrying out their duties at a manufacturing plant. The supervisor regularly used the “n-word” and openly admitted a nonchalant attitude about its use when referring to African Americans. Further, racial slurs, such as referring to African American employees as ‘motherf–ing boys” was routine in the workplace.

In a Detroit case, The EEOC filed suit against Lenscrafters, Inc. for ignoring complaints of a hostile work environment from a male employee who was frequently propositioned for sex by a female employee. The co-worker repeatedly involved the plaintiff in unwanted comments, advances and touching of a sexual nature.  The EEOC complaint also noted that though the plaintiff reported the incidents on several occasions, Lenscrafters did nothing.

Should You File a Hostile Work Environment Suit?

One factor to consider when deciding whether to file a hostile work environment suit is the amount of knowledge the employer has of the situation. The law requires that when an employer knew or should have known of a unlawful hostile work environment, but does nothing in response, this triggers the law in full protection of the employee. Thus, any employee bringing a hostile environment suit should be prepared to prove that their employer was aware of the hostility and did nothing, or very little, about it.

This is why it is also important to address the issue with a manager or human resources. Doing so gives an employer an opportunity to put a stop to the harassing speech or conduct and allows an employee to document the reaction to each complaint lodged. When complaints or grievances are filed, this puts the company on notice of the harassing behavior and creates a legal obligation for the company to take steps to eliminate the offensive behavior.

First, and foremost however, a practical way of addressing hostility at work is to approach the offending co-worker or supervisor and request that the behavior stop immediately. Again, doing so can be a way of documenting the hostility as well as any responses to requests for the behavior to come to an end.

What if Your Employer Retaliates?

Retaliation from an employer is illegal in hostile work environment cases. Specifically, it is unlawful for an employer to retaliate against an employee who files a complaint or charge, or participates in court proceedings based on a complaint or charge under Title VII.

Retaliation to hostile work environment cases is common. Employers often see a complaining employee as a threat to the livelihood of the company. However, there are some employers who are wise enough to properly respond to complaints with swift corrective measures.

In the event that an employer does retaliate, it is up to the employee to prove several elements of the retaliation in order for a case to be successful:

  1. The employee filed a charge of discrimination or harassment or
  2. complained to a covered entity or
  3. participated in an employment discrimination proceeding and
  4. the employer took adverse action as a result of the protected activity.

These basic elements of a retaliation case rely heavily on the fact that a complaint or charge exists, but it is not necessary that the charge or complaint be proven true for a retaliation case to move forward. Rather, it is enough that there was a complaint or charge, and the employer proceeded to demote, harass, fire or otherwise negatively react to it in response.

It is also important to note that retaliation in any form of the employment process is illegal. This includes hiring, training, wages, assignments, promotions, benefits and any other terms or conditions of employment.

If You Find Yourself in a Hostile Work Environment

An important first step in a hostile work environment situation is to clearly state that the conduct or speech is unwelcome and that you want it to stop immediately. Next, it’s important to let a supervisor, manager or human resources personnel know of the nature and severity of the conduct and that you have taken steps to prevent its continuation. Beyond these efforts, a competent attorney can assist with filing formal charges or complaints in a court of law.