Hostile Work Environment, Harassment, and Discrimination Claims by Employees

Unless an employer has an all encompassing "no tolerance" policy for harassing behavior, there is very little protection against bullying bosses and coworkers unless their behavior is discriminatory.

Updated by , J.D. · University of Missouri School of Law

Anyone who has suffered harassment by managers and co-workers knows how negatively it affects the quality of the employment relationshipoften turning the workplace into a "hostile work environment."

These behaviors can turn a dream job into a real nightmare. Some forms of harassment, discrimination, and retaliation are illegal, but others are simply not legal issues with an obvious solution.

What Is a Hostile Work Environment?

A hostile work environment is a workplace where persistent or severe harassment, discrimination, mistreatment, or intimidating behavior are present. Such behavior often interferes with a person's ability to perform their job and causes them emotional distress.

Is a Hostile Work Environment Illegal?

Estimates suggest that some 20 million U.S. workers suffer workplace abuse daily. Yet our legislatures have resisted passing laws that would prohibit bullying and harassment in the workplace.

Unless an employer has an all-encompassing "zero tolerance" policy for harassing or abusive behavior, there is very little protection against bullying bosses and co-workers. This barrier to seeking a remedy for behavior that is obviously abusive and unfair is frustrating to employees and attorneys alike.

The solution is often found in good, creative lawyering. An experienced attorney can try to put the employer on notice that these harassing behaviors are counterproductive and pose risks to employee and employer alike, such as increased absenteeism, lower productivity, morale problems, and even legal claims for workers' compensation benefits, unemployment benefits following a constructive discharge, and violation of civil rights.

Unlawful Harassment and Discrimination Against Employees

The protections are much clearer when an employee is subject to harassment, disparate treatment, or adverse employment action based on characteristics that have been given specific protection by federal or state civil rights law (such as race, age, gender, disability, sexual orientation, religion, and so on).

A hostile work environment characterized by outrageous conduct or communications that relate to a protected civil right is illegal under federal and state law. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 specifically prohibits discrimination based on a number of protected categories, including race, national origin, and sex. Under that law, harassment is a form of discrimination.
A hostile work environment can rise to the level of of harassment or discrimination when it is
  • severe and pervasive, and
  • is motivated by discrimination based on a legally protected category.

Many states have their own laws that offer additional protection.

Retaliation and Hostile Work Environment

Employees engaged in a "protected activity," such as reporting workplace safety violations or civil rights violations, are legally protected from retaliation by the employer. Retaliation occurs when an employer takes adverse action against an employee because the employee has exercised a legal right.

Retaliation might take the form of:

  • threats
  • mistreatment
  • demotion
  • increased workload
  • less desirable assignments, or
  • unwanted transfer.

Employers have a legal obligation to prevent and address retaliatory behavior to maintain an inclusive and secure workplace.

Seek Legal Advice

Experienced employment lawyers deal with these ambiguities daily and develop strategies for achieving the best outcome given the unique facts of each case and client situation.

When faced with harassment or discrimination you should quickly seek the guidance of an employment law attorney that represents employees in such disputes. Left unaddressed, these situations tend to get worse over time. That means doing nothing is a losing strategy.

Get Professional Help
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