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Are you experiencing a 'hostile environment' at work?

Many people experience the "Sunday scaries," or the feeling of anxiety that begins on Sunday evenings at the thought of going into work the next day. However, for some people, this feeling is much worse and is not exclusive to Sundays. Some people are experiencing what is legally considered a "hostile work environment."

Hostile work environments are more than just having a demanding boss or an annoying coworker. According to the United States Department of Labor (DOL), a hostile work environment involves "unwelcome conduct of supervisors, co-workers, customers, contractors, or anyone else with whom the victim interacts on the job, and the unwelcome conduct renders the workplace atmosphere intimidating, hostile, or offensive."

When does workplace harassment constitute a hostile workplace?

Generally, there are two requirements that must exist for the law to consider a workplace hostile. First, the conduct must be discriminatory in nature. This means that the reason for the conduct is because of the employee's gender, age, race, sexuality, religion, disability or other protected class under the Equal Employment Opportunities Commission.

Second, the DOL requires the conduct to be "severe and pervasive enough hat a reasonable person would find [the environment] hostile." Some factors that might be considered to determine this requirement, include:

  • How often does the conduct occur?
  • How serious is the conduct?
  • Did the conduct include threats of violence?
  • Was the conduct embarrassing to the victim?
  • Was the conduct offensive?
  • Did the conduct prevent the victim from performing his or her job duties?
  • Did the victim experience emotional distress as a result of the conduct?
  • Did the conduct come from the victim's supervisor or a peer?

Employees who are experiencing a hostile work environment should first attempt to ask the party to discontinue the conduct. A human resources (HR) manager can assist employees who do not feel comfortable doing this on their own, and it might be helpful in future legal proceedings for HR to have documentation of the conduct.

Employers must investigate any allegations of a hostile work environment and respond with appropriate disciplinary actions. If the employer is aware of the conduct and fails to remedy the situation, the employer might be liable as well.

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