Most people have common misconceptions about what a hostile work environment looks like. They may picture a boss yelling and screaming obscenities at an employee, or they might imagine bullying and teasing from coworkers.
These aren’t inherently incorrect depictions of what a hostile work environment could look like, but they’re devoid of the factors that would legally make them so. Without these factors, this kind of behavior can be chalked up to bullying, which is not always legally actionable.
Unpacking What ‘Hostile Work Environment’ Means
Imagine a big box labeled “discrimination.” Open it up and pull out another box with “harassment” written on the top. Open this box, and you’ll find another labeled “hostile work environment.” The point of this exercise for the mind’s eye is to illustrate that a hostile work environment depends upon harassment based on discrimination taking place.
Discrimination is any kind of treatment that specifically targets or impacts protected classes such as age (if 40 or older), race, skin color, religion, sex, pregnancy status, disability status, gender, gender identity, and more. Discriminatory behavior can happen at the individual level or it can affect entire groups of people, but it must involve treatment based on characteristics that identify people with a protected class.
Harassment, then, is any kind of discriminatory conduct that an employee is forced by their employer to endure, but that’s not all. The behavior must be sosevere or widespread enough that a reasonable person would conclude that the work environment has become intimidating, hostile, or abusive.
Discrimination is the Lynchpin
A hostile work environment doesn’t arise in a vacuum – it’s part and parcel with workplace harassment, which is defined by the presence of discrimination. The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) takes pains to clarify that “petty slights, annoyances, and isolated incidents (unless extremely serious) will not rise to the level of illegality.”
That means a boss who calls you obscenities – even on a daily basis – probably isn’t breaking the law as long as he’s not using discriminatory language or slurs. A coworker who plays cruel practical “jokes” on you is probably also not breaking the law as long as their motivations aren’t based on your association with a protected class.
This effectively makes discrimination the lynchpin that holds the whole concept of a hostile work environment together. Without it, there probably won’t be any legal grounds your attorney can find to bring a lawsuit forward.
What You Can Do if You Aren’t in a Hostile Work Environment
If you’ve read any part of this article, you might be concerned about whether or not you’re experiencing a hostile work environment. The best thing to do right now is to take your concerns to an employment law attorney who can learn more about your situation and help you determine if you have a valid claim.
If it turns out you’re “just” experiencing bullying in the workplace or if you already know discrimination isn’t at play, not all hope is lost. If you’re being mistreated at work but your abuser is skirting the law just enough to avoid unlawful behavior, there are some things you should consider doing.
Here are some tips on how to handle bullying situations at work:
- Confront the person who you feel is mistreating you. It might end up being the case that there’s a misunderstanding at play that can be corrected. You might not feel comfortable confronting your boss directly, so going to HR (as long as the people who run it are supportive and capable) for mediation might help you in this case and many others.
- Create a journal that details what you’re going through. If someone’s behavior ever crosses the line into discriminatory behavior, you could potentially have a substantial log of contemporaneous accounts that would shed light on the abuser’s true motivations.
- Save important information such as emails, text messages, voicemails, and the like. As with journaling, continuous monitoring of the behavior you’re enduring could eventually reveal instances of discriminatory behavior that could have created a hostile work environment.
- Talk with your coworkers if you feel comfortable about doing so. Take a lunch break away from work or meet up after hours to discuss if someone’s mistreatment is affecting another coworker. You might discover that someone else is enduring similar mistreatment that involves discriminatory behavior, which could indicate you are also being targeted for similar reasons.
- Seek new employment, if possible. Of course, we know jobs don’t go on trees and you might have already clawed tooth and nail to get the one you have. That said, no one should endure mistreatment at work, legal or not.
Are You Working in a Hostile Work Environment?
Limonjyan Law Group supports clients in all areas of employment law. Our firm can help clients seek fair and just compensation from their employers when they’ve been subjected to workplace discrimination.
Our attorneys can help you sue your employer for creating a hostile work environment by allowing discrimination to go unchecked. We want to help you hold your employer accountable for violating your rights. That’s because we think you deserve a chance to fight back and we know how to do it.
For the legal support you need, turn to Limonjyan Law Group by contacting us online or calling (213) 377-6707.