As more employees return to in-person work and hiring ramps up, it's important for workers to know their rights as well as what constitutes a hostile or intimidating work setting. After months of isolated remote work or staggered schedules where communication was often virtual and employees were separated, returning to workplace decorum may be challenging for some individuals, whether they're managers or coworkers.
But what's the difference between unwanted or annoying behavior and actions that create an illegal, hostile work environment? A hostile environment begins with harassment. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) defines harassment as unwelcome conduct that is based on race, color, religion, sex, national origin, older age (40 or older), disability, or genetic information.
When Does Harassment Lead to a Hostile Environment?
Harassment is considered unlawful when it is carried out against someone from a protected class, and it additionally satisfies one of two conditions:
- Enduring it becomes a condition of employment, or
- It becomes so severe or pervasive that a reasonable person would consider it to have created an intimidating, offensive, or hostile work environment
In a hostile work environment, a reasonable person is so abused or intimidated that they are not able to perform their job. Isolated incidents, annoyances, or petty slights, such as a boss playing favorites, are generally not considered illegal behavior under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. Instead, offensive conduct that can lead to a hostile work environment might include:
- Using slurs or epithets, making offensive jokes, or name-calling
- Making threats or physical assaults
- Engaging in intimidation, ridicule, or mockery
- Making insults or put-downs
- Sending or displaying offensive pictures or objects
- Interfering with work performance
The harasser can be a supervisor, coworker, or even a non-employee, such as a customer or vendor. Since the person being harassed may not be the only one affected by the offensive behavior, coworkers and others who are impacted may also be eligible for filing a hostile-work-environment claim.
Recent EEOC Settlements on Hostile Work Environments
Identifying the conduct that qualifies for a hostile work environment, particularly in a post-pandemic world where workers may just be getting used to being near one another again, can be difficult. Here are some recent EEOC settlements related to hostile work environments that might help clarify the issues:
- Continued racial slurs -- In a case against Ryder Integrated Logistics and Kimco Staffing, the EEOC argued the two companies created a hostile working environment by allowing employees to continuously use racial slurs and epithets toward African American coworkers. The EEOC contended that after a Black employee complained, the companies fired the employee rather than correcting the situation. Each company was required to pay $1 million and implement policies, procedures, and systems to prevent future instances.
- Sexual harassment against an entire group of females -- MVM, a security services provider, was ordered to pay $100,000 to a female security guard who was subjected to sexual harassment by a manager. The harassment included unwanted touching and lewd comments, and the guard was fired shortly after complaining. The same manager made inappropriate sexual comments, asked for explicit pictures, and made sexual advances toward an entire class of female employees. Although supervisors and other managers were aware of the harassment, they allowed it to continue. Along with requiring the company to provide monetary relief and take other measures, the EEOC ordered MVM to refrain from allowing a hostile work environment based on sexual harassment.
- Sexually hostile work environment on client site -- In 2020, the EEOC charged HM Solutions, a commercial and industrial janitorial services company, with subjecting four female employees to a sexually hostile work environment. Over a period of three years while working at a client site, the women were subjected to sexual harassment by both a male HM Solutions manager and a male shift supervisor. The women complained, and other supervisors observed some of the harassing behavior, but the abuse continued. HM Solutions was ordered to pay $315,000 to the women, as well as provide employee training on sexual harassment, update its anti-harassment policies, and report complaints to the EEOC.
At Barrett & Farahany, we are happy to answer any questions about harassment and hostile work environments. We seek justice at work for all employees. If you or anyone you know is looking for answers, please contact us to speak to one of our attorneys.