What is a Hostile Work Environment?

Global competition, extremely competitive marketplaces, and a 24/7 culture mean that greater demands are being made on employees. The increasing demands on employees at all levels of organizations have led to increasing instances of what is referred to by employment law professionals as a hostile workplace environment.

What is an Actual “Hostile Work Environment?”

When an employee makes a claim based on a hostile workplace environment, they must establish certain elements in order to succeed: offensive conduct that is (1) severe or pervasive, and (2) based on a protected characteristic.

For offensive behavior in the workplace to be considered a “hostile work environment” and generate a valid legal claim, the plaintiff must show that the harassment was based on what is known as a “protected characteristic.” For a hostile work environment claim to be successful, it must qualify as illegal harassment. According to federal law, this means that the mistreatment is based on a worker’s age, race, color, nation of origin, sex, religion, disability, etc. If an employer or supervisor singles out a particular group because of their gender, religion, disability, etc. their conduct could be defined as illegal harassment. If someone is exhibiting misconduct or inappropriate behavior towards everyone in the workplace equally, the conduct may not be aimed at a protected status or group and may not be considered illegal harassment.

Severe or pervasive conduct means that the plaintiff was subjected to unwelcome and/or offensive behavior that was severe or pervasive and that changed the conditions of the individual’s employment. This type of conduct creates a hostile work environment when the employee must endure it in order to retain employment. The standard is whether a reasonable individual would recognize it as abusive, offensive, hostile and/or intimidating. Petty slights in the workplace do not qualify as a hostile work environment as they do not meet the requirement that the misconduct be severe. Isolated incidents do not qualify either, as they do not meet the requirement that the misconduct be pervasive. Exceptions to prevention of claiming a hostile work environment in response to an isolated incident include extremely serious acts such as assault that is sexual in nature or is connected to a protected characteristic.

Examples of severe and pervasive conduct may include: offensive jokes; racial slurs; epithets; name calling, insults, and mockery related to a protected characteristic; display of offensive pictures or items related to a protected characteristic; or physical assaults, threats, or interference in an individual’s job duties because of a protected characteristic.

If you believe you are being subjected to an illegal hostile work environment, you should contact an experienced Atlanta employment law attorney at Barrett & Farahany so we can discuss your rights as an employee and what you can do to protect yourself.
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