What is the actual difference between having a lousy job and working in a “hostile work environment”?
The meaning of hostile work environment is vague, but it comes from Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which made different kinds of discrimination illegal.
A term of art
We lawyers describe the phrase hostile work environment as a “term of art.” That means the phrase has a specific legal meaning that non-lawyers may have trouble understanding.
We know that a hostile work environment is about harassment rooted in discrimination.
To qualify as a hostile working environment, you must be subject to unwelcome verbal or physical conduct that is severe, abusive or intimidating. The harassment must be a condition of continued employment.
There must be a pattern
A single action such as an off-color remark does not qualify as a hostile work environment. There must be a pattern of this mistreatment.
And you must be a member of a protected class. The harassment must be based on your race, color, religion, sex, national origin, age, disability or genetic information.
The purpose of the harassment may be to make you quit. It may be retaliatory in nature, to punish you for complaining or filing a report about discrimination against you. Retaliation may take many forms: unfair disciplinary action, reduced working hours, reduction in pay, demotion or transfer you to an undesirable position or location.
So hostile work environment means more than a place where it is unpleasant to work. While the phrase is vague, employment law attorneys know it when they hear it described.
And if your employer was aware of this pattern of harassment and did nothing to stop it, they may be liable for damages.