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What is a ‘hostile work environment’ exactly?

We often get calls from people who know they are in an unhappy situation at work, but aren’t sure whether their situation constitutes a hostile work environment under the law.

For instance, do these situations rise to the level of hostile work environment?

  • You ask people in your work cube to turn down the music. They say OK, but they keep playing.
  • Your boss says, “My, don’t you look nice!” and makes a face that gives you the creeps.
  • A fellow employee keeps a nudie picture in his locker, “for good luck.”
  • Your supervisor has a bullying management style.
  • Your team leader uses coarse language.

We would need to hear the specifics of each case to determine whether the employer has crossed the line into “hostile work environment.” But there is a good chance that none of these annoyances rise to that serious level.

A phrase of art

Hostile work environment is a phrase of art, established and clarified by many thousands of previous cases. Lawyers and the courts know what those specific meanings are. Everyday workers can’t be expected to understand the fine points of case law.

Few people sue solely for having to work in a hostile work environment. It is a complaint that often meshes with more specific complaints, such as discrimination, sexual harassment, or retaliation.

In order for the case to go forward, it must be actionable – it must be rooted in a real injustice or unfair treatment. It cannot be based on a one-time occurrence. It must be recurring. It must cause real harm. It must be pervasive – a part of the everyday work environment. We call these conditions the “totality of circumstances.”

A word about "reasonableness"

If one word applies to hostile work environments, it is “reasonable.” If you are a very sensitive person, your employer may not realize that he or she is causing offense. The pattern of abusive behavior must seem oppressive to a reasonable person. Testy communications or a joke that is off-color are not enough.

The best way to evaluate the strength of your complaint is to talk to a lawyer. But be aware that it is important to have a strong case.

Rude things happen on the job every day, and they can rankle. But they have to be serious to create a “hostile work environment.”

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