Hostile Work Environment
No one deserves to work in an environment in which harassment, bullying, and abuse are commonplace. Sadly, however, hostile work environments are common in the United States. According to one study, nearly one in five workers say they work in a hostile or threatening environment.
The Harmful Effects of a Hostile Work Environment
Harassment and abuse in the workplace are harmful to both the individual and society as a whole for a variety of reasons. An employee who is the target of harassment from coworkers may suffer from anxiety, distraction, and even physical health issues as a result. An abusive work environment, even one that does not seriously affect an employee’s psychological well-being, can and often will derail their career by detracting from their job performance, discouraging them from showing up to work, and driving them to seek employment elsewhere. Employers that turn a blind eye to harassment in the workplace are often less productive, have higher employee absenteeism, and experience high employee turnover.
The Law Prohibits Conduct that Creates a Hostile Work Environment
Conduct that creates a hostile work environment for an employee is a form of unlawful discrimination if motivated by an employee’s
- national origin,
- disability, or
A number of federal laws protect employees from such conduct, including:
- Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964,
- Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), and the
- Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA).
At the state level, the Texas Commission on Human Rights Act (TCHRA) provides Texas employees with an additional layer of protection from unlawful harassment and abuse at work. The substantive law that governs TCHRA claims mirrors the substantive law that governs its federal counterparts.
Hostile Work Environment Claims
To establish a hostile work environment claim, a plaintiff must generally show the following:
- they were subjected to unwelcome harassment;
- the harassment was based on their gender, pregnancy, race, national origin, age, religion, disability, or whistleblower status; and
- the harassment was sufficiently severe or pervasive that it altered the conditions of their employment and created an abusive working environment.
To ensure that the harasser knows that their comments or conduct is “unwelcome,” the victim should make it clear to the harasser that they find their comments or conduct offensive and wish for it to stop.
To determine whether workplace harassment is severe or pervasive enough to create a hostile work environment, courts consider a variety of factors. These factors may include the frequency of the harassment, its severity, the degree to which the harassment is physically threatening or humiliating, and the degree to which the conduct interferes with an employee’s work performance. Mere crude or offensive jokes or comments are often not severe enough to create a hostile work environment. On the other end of the spectrum, a workplace that is permeated with threats, intimidation, ridicule, and insult would certainly qualify as hostile work environment if based on one of the protected traits listed above.
Importantly, to establish a hostile work environment claim based on harassment by a coworker (rather than a supervisor or higher-level employee), an employee must prove that (1) their employer knew or should have known about their coworker’s harassment, (2) but failed to take prompt, adequate steps to remedy the problem.
An employer can escape liability if it did not have notice of the coworker’s harassment. If you have been subjected to harassment by a coworker that has created a hostile work environment for you, there are several steps you should take to ensure that your employer has notice of the problem:
- Check to see if your employer has an anti-harassment policy that explains how to report harassment in the workplace. An employer’s anti-harassment policy may describe one or more ways that you can report the harassment. For example, some companies have a special “complaint hotline” that employees can call to anonymously report harassment or other types of misconduct to their employer. Other companies may have you fill out and submit a form describing the problem, either online or in person. Employers sometimes publish their anti-harassment policy and complaint procedures on their website or in their employee handbook. Some employers hand out paper copies of their anti-harassment policy during new employee orientations.
- If your employer has an anti-harassment policy or employee-complaint procedure, you should carefully follow the steps in the policy or procedure without delay. If you are unsure whether your employer has an anti-harassment policy or employee-complaint procedure, you should ask a supervisor or someone in the human resources department whether one exists and, if so, to provide you with a copy of it. If your employer does in fact have a specific policy or procedure for reporting harassment or submitting employee complaints, you should carefully follow the steps in the policy or procedure without delay.
- If your employer does not have a specific anti-harassment policy or complaint procedure, you should promptly report the harassment to a supervisor or employee with higher authority inside the organization. You can talk with your own supervisor, the supervisor of the employee who is harassing you, or another supervisor or higher-level employee within your organization. Although you may feel embarrassed or uncomfortable describing the harassment that has occurred, it’s important that you describe it as accurately and thoroughly as possible so that your employer is fully aware of the severity or pervasiveness of the problem. Ask the person who you report the harassment to for their help in putting a stop to the offensive comments and unwelcome conduct. You should also consider asking the person who you report the harassment to whether you should report the issue to someone else within the organization as well to prevent the employer from later claiming that it did not have notice of the issue because you reported it to the “wrong” person within the company.
Once you have reported the harassment to your employer, the law requires that your employer take prompt and adequate steps to stop the behavior that is creating a hostile work environment for you. In determining whether an employer took “prompt remedial measures,” courts consider various factors including:
- whether the employer took the allegations of harassment seriously;
- how promptly the employer responded to the allegations;
- how thoroughly the employer investigated the allegations;
- whether and to what extent the employer took remedial and disciplinary measures as a result of its investigation; and
- whether and to what extent the employer had policies, procedures, and practices in place to prevent and deal with harassment in the workplace.
When to Speak to an Employment Lawyer About a Hostile Work Environment
If you believe that you may have a hostile work environment claim, there are a number of things you can do to protect your rights and improve your chances of a successful outcome:
- Document everything. Keep detailed notes about the events that transpire at work. Each time you hear an offensive comment or are subjected to some form of harassment or abuse, write down the date, time, location, a detailed description of what happened, the harasser’s name, the names of any witnesses who were present when it happened, and exactly what was said or done.
- Keep copies or take screenshots of any relevant emails, text messages, photographs, videos, and social-media posts.
- Tell a trusted friend, family member, and/or coworker what happened and write down the details of those conversations. They may not only provide you with encouragement and support, they may also provide corroborating statements if you need them later on.
- Keep notes and documents related to your job productivity and performance. If possible, review and/or obtain copies of your performance reviews and personnel file. Having your own copies of these documents is important because you and your attorney may need to use them as evidence later on, should your employer ever dispute your performance. Moreover, having your own copies of these records will prevent attempts by your employer to cover its tracks by, for example, adding records to your personnel file after-the-fact, altering your employment records, or “losing” key documents that support your claim.
- Store all documents, notes, and evidence outside of your office. Keep any notes, electronic files, documents, photographs, and videos on a personal computer, USB drive, or phone rather than a work computer or phone. Out of an abundance of caution, you should assume that your employer monitors and keeps a record of all communications on your work computer and mobile device.
In addition to taking the actions described above, hiring a knowledgeable and experienced employment lawyer may help you achieve the best outcome possible in your case. An employment lawyer may advise you on your rights, help you prepare your EEOC complaint in a manner that preserves your rights, ensure that your filing deadlines are met, investigate and collect the evidence that you will later need to prove your claims, and represent you in a lawsuit.
Because of the complicated administrative process, short filing deadlines, and complex web of employment laws that might apply to your case, employees who work in a hostile work environment should contact the Wagoner Law Firm without delay for a free case evaluation.