The hostile environment in the workplace refers to any work setting where there is undue pressure, intimidating behavior, or physical or verbal abuse directed at another individual. In the United States, the term “hostile work environment” exists if one’s conduct in a workplace creates an uncomfortable or unsafe working environment for another individual, because of illegal discrimination. A hostile work environment is usually unlawful and constitutes severe or detrimental interference with another individual’s work performance, enjoyment, or dignity. If a company is found guilty of creating a hostile or uncomfortable working environment, the court can require them to correct the behavior or pay monetary damages. Under U.S. labor laws, an employee can bring a private lawsuit against the employer, if they are subjected to race, gender, age, national origin, or any other category protected by federal or state law. In most cases, private lawsuits must be brought by an employee within a three-year employment relationship.
Hostile environments often occur in the office environment but can also occur in the school or even in the hospital. Sexual harassment occurs when a status of a sexual nature is used either in the workplace or otherwise in a public or private environment. For example, if employees are asked to refer to another employee by using suggestive language or to participate in a sexual act, this could constitute harassment. Harassment can include offensive comments about a person’s gender, physical appearance, religion, or race. However, the court may not allow a claim of sexual harassment based solely on the result of being asked to perform a task that does not relate to the person’s ability to do a job.
There are many gray areas in the definition of a hostile work environment. In most instances, if an individual feels that they have been unfairly discriminated against, they can file a claim with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission or EEOC. To begin filing a claim, the victim should document all incidents of social media harassment and any information that may be relevant. The more accurate and detailed the documentation, the better chance one has of success. This documentation will help to paint a clear picture of what occurred so that appropriate action can be taken by the company or employer.
Many employers try to argue that they cannot be held responsible for something that someone else might consider to be offensive conduct because that conduct would be considered a “personal” issue. However, courts have repeatedly rejected that argument, especially when a victim decides to sue the company for illegal harassment. If the employer cannot reasonably excuse themselves from responsibility for their actions, they must be held financially responsible for any action resulting from their employee’s status as a victim of unlawful harassment. In the case of Benny Boyd Auto Group, the victims brought a lawsuit after being subjected to offensive conduct in the workplace.
The EEOC decided that the defendants could be held financially responsible for statements that they made about one of their employees (a female supervisor) and their sexual orientation. While the defendants did not admit to making the statements in any way, the court found that they continued to make statements about the victim after they were aware that they were unlawful harassment. For example, the company’s owner had told another employee that he thought it was funny when the latter said that he enjoyed making advances on women. This statement was the basis for the victim making a complaint that resulted in the EEOC putting the company under a national microscope and forcing it to change its policy prohibiting discrimination due to sexual orientation.
Unfortunately, companies often use their discretion to avoid addressing offensive conduct, even if they are aware that it is unlawful. In the case of Bait Shop Baitwall, the company avoided addressing reports of its owner’s harassment of employees by pointing out that he worked for an agency rather than a brick-and-mortar business. However, to hold a company accountable for its actions, it is vital to show that there was a hostile work environment and that the company was aware of the hostile environment at the time that they took the action that they did.