How do I know if I am working in a hostile work environment?

A “hostile work environment” is a legal term that refers to verbal or physical harassment in the workplace against certain protected classes of people.

A supervisor being rude, or an employer simply disliking an employee and deciding to make them unhappy until they quit, or even firing them, do not fall under legally-defined hostile work environment unless the treatment is based on the employee’s membership of a protected class. Under California law, people are in “protected classes” on the basis of:

  • Race or Color
  • Religious Creed
  • National Origin or Ancestry
  • Physical Disability, Mental Disability or Medical Condition
  • Marital Status
  • Sex / Gender
  • Sexual Orientation
  • Gender Identity or Gender Expression
  • Age
  • Military or Veteran Status
  • Genetic Information

It is sufficient that the person doing the harassment believes that the individual is a member of one of these protected classes, even if that is not the case.

Harassment can take many forms, such as offensive language or writing, pictures or printed materials, pranks, jokes, sexual innuendo or other forms of harassment. A few examples include racial slurs, sexually suggestive pictures, inappropriate jokes that single out people from a different country or ridicule of an employee because of his or her disability.

Under California law, a work environment can be considered hostile if the conduct is so severe and pervasive that it alters the conditions of the victim’s employment. A reasonable person would have to agree that the hostility interferes with the employee’s ability to do their job, causes emotional distress or disrupts their career progress. The California Legislature and court decisions make it clear that sexual harassment does not have to be motivated by sexual desire for the victim.

The law also requires that the employer know or should be aware of the conduct. This requirement is met if the harassment was committed by a supervisor or person with authority, or in the presence of one, or the employer was informed of the situation. Once the employer is aware of the issue, it may be legally liable if it does not take immediate and appropriate corrective action.

Even if a complaint was made to a supervisor about what the employee perceived to be a hostile work environment, they may have legal recourse if the employer should have known it was occurring. It is best to consult with an experienced employment lawyer to determine if one has a case.

If an employee’s job performance suffers or they fear going to work because of offensive behavior at the workplace related to their actual or perceived membership of a protected class, McCormack & Erlich has an extensive background helping individuals experiencing a hostile work environment.

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