Federal law categorizes a hostile work environment as a form of illegal harassment. Specifically, prohibited actions include intimidation, abuse or hostility about a legally protected class.
Review the factors that determine the existence of a hostile work environment.
Actions that create hostility
The federal law applies to ongoing, pervasive conduct, not to isolated incidents. The conduct in question must focus on the plaintiff’s religion, pregnancy status, race or age older than 40.
For this type of claim, the judge will consider whether the conduct in question would offend a reasonable person. Some common aspects of a hostile work environment include:
- Blocking a person from completing work tasks
- Displaying offensive graphics or slogans
- Threats or physical intimidations
- Mocking or insulting language
- Making offensive jokes
- Calling names
- Using ethnic, sexual or racial slurs
Anyone at the employment location can create a hostile work environment, including the plaintiff’s direct supervisor, another supervisor or colleagues. The law may also apply to harassment by customers, visitors to the work location, subcontractors, agents and partners of the employer.
If the plaintiff can prove that termination, lack of promotion or loss of wages occurred because a supervisor created a hostile work environment, the employer automatically has legal responsibility. However, the company can refute the charges with proof that the plaintiff refused offered corrective measures for the harassment.
In other cases, the plaintiff must show that the employer failed to act despite knowing about the harassment. The plaintiff has 180 days to file a claim with the Equal Opportunity Employment Commission after harassing conduct occurs.