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You are Here: Home > Workplace > Hostile Work Environment

Hostile Work Environment

Hostile Work Environment Definition

All sorts of behavior can create what employees deem to be a "hostile work environment". But, in the legal sense, a hostile work environment is caused by unwelcome conduct in the workplace, in the form of discriminatory harassment toward one or more employees.

Other names for a hostile work environment include intimidating work environment, offensive work environment, abusive work environment and hostile workplace.

The harassing workplace bully might be an employee, such as a bad boss or coworker, or even a non-employee such as a client or independent contractor.

But who the workplace bully is doesn't matter as much in the legal sense, as does the fact that he or she is creating an intimidating, offensive, abusive or hostile work environment through discriminatory workplace harassment.

Both victims and witnesses are protected under the relevant laws. The courts recognize that witnesses too might suffer consequences of workplace hostility, even though they were not the direct targets.

Hostile Work Environment Laws

There are no Federal "hostile work environment laws" or "hostile workplace laws" named as such. Creating a hostile workplace is prohibited under certain Federal discrimination laws (listed below).

Subsequently, to be illegal under one of the laws in the eyes of the courts, a hostile work environment typically must be caused by discriminatory workplace harassment based on race, color, religion, national origin, disability, genetics, age or sex; or it must be caused by retaliation in violation of a discrimination law.

Reservists and veterans are protected from a hostile work environment based on their military service, but under a different law. For more information, see Employment Discrimination for Military Service.

Additionally, the harassment typically must be intentional, severe, recurring and pervasive, and interfere with an employee's ability to perform his or her job whether victim or witness.

Lastly, the victim or witnesses typically must reasonably believe that tolerating the hostile work environment is a condition of continued employment. In other words, the victim or witnesses typically must reasonably believe that they have no choice, but to endure a hostile workplace in order to keep their jobs.

Listed below are the specific Federal discrimination laws under which it's prohibited to create a hostile work environment through discriminatory harassment; but, other discrimination laws might come into play. Also, the state in which you work might have enacted equivalent laws with better protections than the Federal versions.

Whether a victim or witness, you may report a hostile work environment by filing an appropriate discrimination charge directly with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) or a state equivalent, or with either though your attorney. To file a lawsuit under one of the laws listed above, you must first file a charge with the EEOC or a state equivalent. A statute of limitations applies.

Before reporting a hostile work environment to the EEOC or a state equivalent, you might have a stronger case if you first followed your employer's anti-harassment policies to no avail. Otherwise, your employer might weaken your case with the Faragher-Ellerth defense. This and other potential complications might make it a good idea to consult an attorney before filing your charge. Attorneys often take winnable discrimination cases on contingency.

See Harassment or Sexual Harassment for more information about discriminatory harassment, relevant laws and avenues of relief.

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