One of the primary issues that workers face while at their jobs is a negative or toxic atmosphere. An exceedingly negative workplace can drastically impact morale and productivity, which can in turn lead to stress, monetary losses, and strained relationships.
An exceedingly negative workplace can drastically impact morale and productivity, which can in turn lead to stress, monetary losses, and strained relationships. However, a negative workplace is not illegal in and of itself. In order for a law to be broken, the workplace must be deemed hostile and have a frequency or severity to the harassment that takes place. A hostile work environment is one of the key reasons for harassment and discrimination lawsuits against businesses. If you feel that you may be the victim of a hostile workplace environment at your job, you should read as much information as you can to prepare yourself to take legal action. Our law firm, Employment Attorney Group, has provided numerous resources for you to consider to learn more about hostile workplace environments and workplace discrimination.
What is Considered a Hostile Work Environment Under Federal Law?
According to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s (EEOC) listings, a hostile workplace environment is evidence of harassment, which may be discriminatory in nature. The EEOC primarily deals with Federal laws that outlaw harassment and its derivatives. These laws are the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967, the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, and more.
As per the EEOC:
Harassment is unwelcome conduct that is based on race, color, religion, sex (including pregnancy), national origin, age (40 or older), disability or genetic information. Harassment becomes unlawful where 1) enduring the offensive conduct becomes a condition of continued employment, or 2) the conduct is severe or pervasive enough to create a work environment that a reasonable person would consider intimidating, hostile, or abusive. Anti-discrimination laws also prohibit harassment against individuals in retaliation for filing a discrimination charge, testifying, or participating in any way in an investigation, proceeding, or lawsuit under these laws; or opposing employment practices that they reasonably believe discriminate against individuals, in violation of these laws.
Petty slights, annoyances, and isolated incidents (unless extremely serious) will not rise to the level of illegality. To be unlawful, the conduct must create a work environment that would be intimidating, hostile, or offensive to reasonable people.
The key here is that pettiness, isolated incidents, and anything that is not altogether serious cannot constitute illegal actions and, therefore, a hostile workplace environment. In sum, the actions must have been discriminatory, lasted over a period of time, severe, and not remedied by the employer.
What is Considered a Hostile Work Environment Under CA Law?
California law has many similarities with Federal law, especially when it comes to discrimination and harassment. In fact, California covers many more protected traits and qualities than Federal laws do.
When it comes to the law, California legislature (Cal. Gov’t Code § 12940, title 2. Government of the State of California, Division 3. Executive Department, Part 2.8. Department of Fair Employment and Housing, Chapter 6. Discrimination Prohibited, Article 1. Unlawful Practices) dictates the following:
(j) (1) For an employer, labor organization, employment agency, apprenticeship training program or any training program leading to employment, or any other person, because of race, religious creed, color, national origin, ancestry, physical disability, mental disability, medical condition, genetic information, marital status, sex, gender, gender identity, gender expression, age, sexual orientation, or military and veteran status, to harass an employee, an applicant, an unpaid intern or volunteer, or a person providing services pursuant to a contract. Harassment of an employee, an applicant, an unpaid intern or volunteer, or a person providing services pursuant to a contract by an employee, other than an agent or supervisor, shall be unlawful if the entity, or its agents or supervisors, knows or should have known of this conduct and fails to take immediate and appropriate corrective action.
An employer may also be responsible for the acts of nonemployees, with respect to harassment of employees, applicants, unpaid interns or volunteers, or persons providing services pursuant to a contract in the workplace, if the employer, or its agents or supervisors, knows or should have known of the conduct and fails to take immediate and appropriate corrective action. In reviewing cases involving the acts of nonemployees, the extent of the employer’s control and any other legal responsibility that the employer may have with respect to the conduct of those nonemployees shall be considered. An entity shall take all reasonable steps to prevent harassment from occurring. Loss of tangible job benefits shall not be necessary in order to establish harassment.
That is to say, the behavior must be discriminatory in some way, pervasive and not infrequent, severe and damaging, and unwelcome to the victim. It can thus be difficult to determine if you have been working in a hostile environment, as you may not know what constitutes the degree of each.
How can I tell if I have been working in a Hostile Work Environment?
There are various ways that you could be working in a hostile environment. We have written some of the most common occurrences below. If you have been a victim to any of these over a period of time, you may be working in a hostile workplace.
- Talking about sexual acts or making sexually suggestive comments
- Reciting offensive jokes, anecdotes, and remarks concerning protected people
- Saying unwarranted or unwanted statements about another individual’s physical traits or qualities
- Showing off racist photos or sexually inappropriate or explicit photographs
- Using cavalier language, such as slurs, insensitive remarks, and more
- Usage of inappropriate gestures
- Purposely ruining a fellow employee’s work, project, or career in some way
- Unwelcome touching and physicality
- Verbal or physical threats
If you have been on the receiving end of any of these actions, you should look into potentially filing a claim against your employer.
Who is liable for a Hostile Work Environment?
Your employer is liable for your losses and mistreatment if you were a victim of a hostile workplace environment. This is because your employer and you likely have a contract or agreement of some kind that you should be protected, and this extends past the physical safety of the job and the treatment by customers or clients. Coworkers and fellow employees should also be held to that same standard.
If you were a victim in your workplace and you suffered losses of some kind, your employer can be held accountable. It can be difficult to wrestle a settlement or a winning lawsuit from your employer, though, without appropriate legal representation.
What to do if I am in a Hostile Work Environment.
If you are in a hostile work environment, you should make it a point to gather a lot of evidence and try to remedy the situation firsthand. Your first step should be to go to Human Resources to file a complaint. You can have a working list of evidence to present to the Human Resources representative. If no agreement is reached, you should always make copies of any interactions, emails, and messages exchanged between the parties. It is important to remember that Human Resources exists to protect the company from its employees, and not the other way around.
Your evidence can include pictures of the discrimination, videos of the harassment, audio recordings of advances and unwelcome remarks, a journal detailing the discrimination and harassment, messages to your Human Resources Department and your boss, and more.
It will also be extremely paramount to your case that you get statements and testimonies from coworkers if they saw discrimination and harassment from other individuals at the job. It is hard to get employees to get on your side and provide statements, though, because by doing so, they may be risking their jobs. It is thus difficult to acquire different supporting perspectives.
Once you have collected all of your evidence, you can submit it to the Federal EEOC or Department of Fair Employment and Housing (DFEH) in California to request a right to sue letter. This letter will enable you to take legal action against your employer. You have 180 days to file a lawsuit against your employer if you go through the EEOC, and 300 days to sue if you go through the DFEH. This statute of limitations is very important, as it can literally determine your case’s legibility.
Further, you should know that if you plan to file a claim against a government entity of some kind, the statute of limitations is drastically reduced from 300 days to 90 days.
Potential Earnings from a Hostile Workplace Environment Lawsuit
Victims of hostile workplace environments can take legal action and win ample compensation for their damages. Because a hostile workplace can severely damage your job and make you miss out on income, you could see for a lot of reimbursement. You should pursue damages for the following:
- Loss of bonuses and promotional cash
- Loss of any benefits, like medical and dental insurance
- Reimbursement of back wages that you missed out on because you were terminated or unable to complete your job duties
- Future income if you cannot find a job because of the difficulties
- Punitive damages if the employer were particularly negligent or deliberately treated you in a discriminatory way, or if they harassed you outright
With the help of an expert attorney, you can receive the maximum damages available for your lawsuit. You should not be expected to incur such debts because another individual at your job was discriminatory or acted in a purposely hostile manner.