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New York Employment Law Blog

Sunday, November 27, 2016

What is a Hostile Work Environment?

The contemporary workplace is rapidly evolving, but this does not mean employees can escape bad bosses, or rude colleagues. Many people mistakenly believe that a hostile work environment is one that is merely unpleasant, however, this is not the case. There are certain legal criteria that determine when a workplace is considered to be hostile.

Legal Criteria for a Hostile Work Environment

Generally, a hostile work environment is one in which the behavior, action or communication of a boss, supervisor, manager or coworker makes it impossible for an employee to perform his or her job. In addition, the hostility must be associated with legally prohibited behavior such as discrimination, harassment or retaliation.

There legal requirements that define a hostile work environment are as follows:

  • The actions must discriminate against protected classifications such as age, religion, disability, or race
  • The behavior must be persistent and continue over time
  • The actions or communications must be severe enough to disrupt the employee's ability to work or interfere with his or her ability to advance

How to Deal with a Hostile Work Environment

If you believe you are being subjected to a hostile work environment, the first thing to do is tell the offender to stop his or her behavior or communication. In so doing, you put the person on notice that the behavior is offensive and will not be tolerated.

If the behavior continues, it is important to document any incidents of harassment or discrimination and report these to a supervisor or human resources. If the organization fails to investigate the matter and take steps to address it, the employer can be found liable for creating a hostile work environment.

Similarly, employers have a responsibility to ensure that the workplace is free from harassment and discrimination. It is crucial to memorialize policies and procedures in a employment handbook specifying that such behavior will not be tolerated. It is also important to outline disciplinary measures that will be taken against those who create a hostile work environment up to and including termination.

The Takeaway

In sum, the offensive behavior must alter the terms, conditions and/or reasonable expectations of a comfortable work environment. While certain rude or inappropriate behavior may not create a hostile work environment, a coworker who tells sexually explicit or racist jokes may be guilty of sexual harassment of discrimination which constitute a hostile work environment. If you have been the victim of a hostile work environment or are an employer facing charges of harassment or discrimination, you should engage the services of an experienced employment law attorney.


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