Hostility in the Workplace

            Both federal and state civil rights laws offer protections to employees from being subjected to a hostile work environment when the hostility or harassment is because of gender, race, ethnic or national origin, religion, or disability, including pregnancy. A hostile work environment exists when the workplace is pervaded with discriminatory intimidation, ridicule, or insult. The hostility must be sufficiently severe or pervasive to alter the conditions of the victim's employment and create an abusive working environment.  It must be serious enough to interfere with the employee’s ability to perform his or her duties.

            Generally, periodic or isolated acts or incidents are not enough (except for particularly egregious instances that are discussed more fully below). They must be frequent or recurring, so much so that the working conditions become threatening, humiliating, degrading or otherwise interfere with the employee's performance. If the harassment is being caused by a co-worker, it is important that the employee complain to a supervisor or manager. This should be done in writing through the employer’s complaint or grievance procedure, if there is one, or through email or other documented method.  Try to keep a copy of your written complaints if possible.  Once the employer is put on notice of a hostile work environment or other discriminatory conduct, the employer has a legal obligation to correct the problem and protect its employees from such harassment or hostility. Courts have held that repeated sexual or racial slurs or sexually explicit remarks in the work place may create a hostile work environment based on race or sex.  

            While most unlawful hostile work environment cases involve repeated acts of harassment, some acts may be so severe that a single incident by a supervisor may constitute a hostile work environment. For example, a court recently found that a male supervisor’s actions in following a female employee into a room, blocking her from leaving, and rubbing his genital area against her backside could be sufficiently severe to constitute an illegal harassment under federal law. The court found that “this single act was egregious enough to create a hostile work environment.” The physical humiliation and degrading nature of that single act was sufficient to support a claim against the employer.

             If you have been the victim of a hostile work environment based on gender, race, ethnic origin, religion or disability you may recover money for damages you suffer as a result of such conduct.  Those damages may include recovery for lost wages and emotional distress.  In addition, you may be able to recover punitive damages, which act as a monetary punishment to the employer. But to pursue such claims under federal civil rights laws and some state laws you will first have to file a charge with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission ("EEOC") or your state civil rights agency. Employees who have suffered discrimination in the form of a hostile work environment have a limited amount of time within which to file such a charge and should contact an experienced employment attorney for assistance as soon as possible, due to the fact that this may be a fairly complicated process.  Do not wait before it is too late.

               If you have questions, would like additional information, or would like to speak with one of our employment law attorneys about your specific situation, contact Mike O'Hara or Megan Mersch today.  

Author: Michael J. O'Hara, Esq.