What Qualifies as a Hostile Work Environment?

It can be hard to tell when a work environment has crossed the line from simply difficult to openly hostile. Many workers don’t know what qualifies as a hostile work environment, and as a result, they might not report harassment or other inappropriate behavior.

In this article, we will discuss what constitutes a hostile work environment and what does not. If you think you are experiencing a hostile work environment, it is important to speak with one of our experienced employment attorneys who can help you determine your legal options.

What is Not Considered a Hostile Work Environment?

Most of us associate the word “hostile” with angry, aggressive behavior. However, the law does not protect us against jerks. In the strict letter of the law, “hostile work environment” really only refers to a work environment where sexual harassment permeates the work atmosphere. With that being said, to be illegal, hostile behavior must be targeted to employees with certain protected characteristics such as race, religion, or sex (which includes sexual harassment). This means that a coworker (or a supervisor) who is rude to everyone, regardless of their protected status, is not breaking the law. Supervisors who have “favorites” where the favorites are not homogenous in terms of protected classes (e.g. a racially diverse favorites group) are also not breaking the law. Additionally, isolated incidents or petty slights are usually not enough to create a hostile work environment. For example, if your boss yells at you one day for being late, that is not enough to sue for creating a hostile work environment.

In this clip, Michael Scott, a notoriously terrible boss from the television show The Office, reverses the concept of a hostile work environment in true Michael Scott fashion. First, he says that his coworkers can be teased for things like “being gay” but wants to ban teasing for things like falling into a koi pond (as Michael himself did). When Toby, the Human Resources representative, rightfully points out that Michael is wrong, Michael snaps at Toby, calling him a “lemon head.” Of course, Michael’s instincts are wrong. Teasing a person for something like falling in a koi pond, while perhaps a little insensitive, is not against the law (unless, for example, the person being teased has a disability that causes them to fall easily). On the other hand, teasing, harassing, or treating workers differently because of their sexual orientation does cross the line into hostile work environment territory.

What is Considered a Hostile Work Environment?

A hostile work environment exists when the harassment is so severe and pervasive that it alters your ability to do your job. The behavior must be more than just offensive; it must be objectively abusive.

The harasser can be anyone in the workplace, including a supervisor, coworker, or even a customer or client. The victim does not have to be the person harassed but can be anyone affected by the offensive conduct.

To assess whether behavior is severe or pervasive enough to create a hostile work environment, courts will look at factors such as:

  • How often did the discriminatory conduct occur?
  • Was the conduct directed at you because of your protected status?
  • What type of conduct was it?
  • Would a reasonable person find the work environment hostile based on this conduct?

Yet again, The Office provides us with an example of behavior that crosses the line. In the Season 2 episode titled “Sexual Harassment,” Michael finds himself in hot water after forwarding an explicit email. In a conversation with his boss, HR, and a corporate attorney, he asks, “Where’s the line?” as though convinced that he can no longer say “anything” or share his sense of humor. In this case, Michael provides numerous examples of crossing the line — from the naked female doll featured in his office to his catchphrase, “That’s what she said!” it seems Michael can’t help but cross the line.

While Michael ultimately gets away with his sexist brand of humor, his behavior likely gives rise to legal claims for the rest of his coworkers. Throughout the show, Michael crosses the line many times: teasing Kelly about being an Indian American; making inappropriate, sexist comments; hiring a stripper; and making fun of Oscar for being gay (the list goes on). The show might be a light-hearted take on office relationships, but if these incidents happened in the real world, Michael Scott would probably be a defendant in multiple lawsuits.

Signs of a Hostile Work Environment

If you are wondering whether your work environment has become hostile, there are some signs to look out for. A few examples of behavior that could create a hostile work environment include:

  • Repeated comments or jokes about a protected characteristic (e.g., race, gender, sexual orientation, religion, ethnicity)
  • Displaying offensive symbols or pictures
  • Threatening or intimidating behavior
  • Physical assaults or unwanted touching
  • Sexual harassment

Keep in mind that these are just a few examples; the list is not exhaustive. If you believe you are being harassed at work, it is important to speak with an attorney to discuss your specific situation.

Documenting Harassment

If you feel you are in a hostile work environment, one of the most important things you can do is document the harassment. Keep a detailed log or journal of each incident, including the date, time, witnesses, and what was said or done. Keep the journal at home, not in the workplace. This will be important evidence if you decide to file a claim against your employer.

Reporting the harassment to HR or another manager is also important to give your workplace a chance to correct the behavior. Check out this page for tips on reporting harassment. 

Get Help from an Experienced Employment Attorney

If you are facing harassment at work, you might be feeling scared and alone. An experienced employment attorney can help you understand your rights and options. 

To learn more about hostile work environment claims or speak with us about your situation, contact us today for a free consultation. We would be happy to help you with your options , including taking action to protect your rights.