When you can and can’t sue over a hostile work environment

Most of us have worked for a boss that we didn’t like at one time or another.

But if you’ve ever had the experience of working for someone who has a short fuse, you may have seen how a day at the office can leave you feeling like you’ve been in a war zone all day.

It’s obvious that treating employees in a disrespectful manner is unprofessional, but you may be wondering if there are cases where it may actually be unlawful. (Spoiler alert: there are.)

Let’s take a look at what the law says about hostile work environments.

Is Hostility in the Eye of the Beholder?

The phrase “hostile work environment” may appear to be one that could be open to a lot of interpretation. That is, what’s “hostile” behavior to one person may be no big deal to another. 

However, the law is much more specific when defining a hostile work environment.

Yelling, screaming, engaging in loud rants—taken by themselves, these things alone are not unlawful.

Where bosses may cross the line into unlawful territory is when their outbursts meet three criteria:

  1. Their targets fall into various “protected categories,” such as women, older employees, people of certain races or national origins, etc.
  2. Their behavior is so extreme that it changes the terms and conditions of a person’s, or a group of people’s, employment.
  3. The employee or employees have complained about the situation, but nothing was done.

Let’s examine each of these criteria in more detail.

A Pattern of Discrimination

The first point boils down to this: The behavior has to have a discriminatory element to it.

The law prohibits discrimination based on certain “protected classes.” That includes color, religion, sex (including pregnancy), national origin, age (people age 40 or older), disability, or genetic information.

If a boss’s tirades include racial slurs, sexist references, or something similarly derogatory toward a specific group or groups of people, the behavior may meet the first criteria of a hostile work environment.

Unbearable Working Conditions

The second point requires that working conditions are negatively affected by the behavior.

This, too, has specific criteria attached. A hostile work environment isn’t a matter of simply working under unpleasant conditions. Rather, the behavior has to be so severe and pervasive that it interferes with an employee’s ability to do his or her work, or it prevents the person from moving ahead in his or her career.

An isolated incident of bad behavior is generally not enough to prove a hostile work environment. Rather, there usually needs to be evidence of repeated incidents, as well as the consequences.

Complaints Fell on Deaf Ears

Finally, the law spells out that employees must give employers a chance to correct the situation before they can proceed with a lawsuit.

Unfortunately, some companies may fail to address worker complaints, preferring instead to sweep difficult situations under the rug rather than confront a senior employee.

What It Means to Employees

It’s important to note that coworkers or even customers may also be responsible for creating hostile work environments under certain conditions.

If you’ve been dealing with a hostile work environment and have been unable to get resolution, it may be time to speak with an attorney.

Email us at murphy@phillyemploymentlawyer.com or call (267) 273-1054 for a free consultation.