In today’s society, many people are actually unclear about exactly what is involved in a work environment that is considered “hostile.” Some people are under the belief that an annoying boss equals a hostile work environment, while others believe a consistently rude coworker, or even failure to achieve a promotion or raise could rise to the level of a hostile work environment. While these issues certainly could be a part of a hostile work environment, any one of them, taken individually, is unlikely to rise to the legal definition. The simplest way to define the term is any work environment that has rendered you unable to perform your regular job duties, due to communication or behavior by a supervisor and/or co-worker.
Have Your Work Environment Terms Been Altered?
In other words, when the behavior of a boss and/or co-worker alters the work environment terms or halts the (reasonable) expectations you have of a work environment that is safe and comfortable, then you may be working in a hostile work environment. Additionally, these behaviors, communications or actions must discriminate against you in some way. This means that the co-worker who heats up unspeakably smelly things in the microwave every day at lunch, or the boss who hangs around your desk loudly asking you incessant questions—or any other boss or co-worker who demonstrates inappropriate or obnoxious behaviors—may be annoying, but do not rise to the legal level of a hostile work environment.
Are Others at Work Making You Uncomfortable?
On the flip side, if the boss who hangs around your desk is also relating jokes which are sexually explicit, constantly asking you out, or looking down at your blouse as you type, then you are dealing with a work environment that is making you uncomfortable, and even fearful. And, if the co-worker who eats smelly lunches passes around sexually explicit photos while he eats, then again, you may be dealing with an issue that goes far beyond annoying. Further, if your boss verbally harangues you regarding your gender, your race, your religion, or your age, then he or she could be guilty of causing you to work in a hostile work environment.
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When a Joke is Not a Joke
It is important to note, that even if these comments are cloaked as a “joke,”—said with a smile or laugh—the person saying the discriminatory comments to you could be guilty of creating a hostile work environment. As an example, if, every morning when you walk into the office, the boss laughs and says, “Here comes the old lady,” then you may not think it is much of a joke. Especially if you have asked the person making the comments to stop, but he or she continues, then a hostile work environment is definitely a possibility. In fact, the first thing you should always do when a certain behavior makes you uncomfortable is to address the comments or behavior directly with the person.
Legal Requirements for Hostile Work Environment
So, to recap, the legal requirements for a hostile work environment include:
- The comments, behaviors, or actions you are dealing with must show discrimination against you based on your race, a specific disability, your religion, your gender, or your age.
- The comments, behaviors, or actions must not have occurred just one time, rather must be pervasive, occurring over a period of time—in other words, one off-color remark that you found inappropriate or annoying does not equal a hostile work environment.
- The comments, behaviors, or actions must be considered severe enough to significantly disrupt your ability to complete your normal work or you must have failed to receive a raise or promotion as a result of the comments, behaviors, or actions—in other words, your career path was interrupted by the behaviors.
- You must reasonably believe your employer was aware of the comments, behaviors, or actions and did nothing to intervene.
What to Do if You are Experiencing a Hostile Work Environment
As noted, your first course of action is to ask those who are creating a hostile work environment to stop their comments, actions, or behaviors. If you find this too difficult to do on your own, you should speak to a manager, or talk to someone in Human Resources who can help you. Nearly all the time, the person will stop the behaviors, comments, or actions which made you uncomfortable. In some cases, the person may truly not have realized he or she was making you uncomfortable, or in other cases, the person may simply not want to be sued or lose their job.
Whether you are asking your boss or a co-worker to stop the behaviors which are making you feel as though you work in a hostile work environment, once you do ask, those behaviors must stop immediately. If the behaviors do not stop, you must report them to your manager, employer or Human Resources. In other words, you must give the person the opportunity to change their behavior after you have told them they are making you uncomfortable, then if nothing changes, you must report the continued behavior to a supervisor or HR. It is important that you allow your employer the chance to do what is right before you take the next step. Most employers will not tolerate workers making other workers miserable or preventing them from doing their job—although there are exceptions.
Federal Law Prohibits Hostile Work Environment
The Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits inappropriate conduct in the workplace which leaves any person feeling harassed or discriminated against, due to his or her gender, age, religion, national origin or race. To rise to the level of a hostile work environment, the conduct must be considered abusive or hostile by a reasonable person and must be affecting your ability to do your work, or causing the quality of your work to suffer. As an example, if you happen to have a boss who consistently yells at everyone in the office, he or she would certainly be considered a bad boss.
However, unless this boss singles you out, making discriminatory comments directly to you, while you may feel as though you work in a hostile environment, it may not rise to the legal definition of a hostile work environment. Although hostile work environments occur in every profession and industry, for those outside the healthcare industry, it may be surprising to find that nurses often deal with hostile work environments. This can be a result of sick, stressed-out patients and their families, other nurses, or doctors. In fact, a fairly significant number of nurses have actually given up their profession because of nurse-on-nurse bullying.
Document Everything if You Are Experiencing a Hostile Work Environment
The single most crucial thing you can do if you are experiencing discriminatory actions or comments which rise to the level of a hostile work environment is to fully document every single thing. If you end up filing a hostile work environment claim, you must be able to prove your assertions with fact-based, detailed examples and solid evidence. The courts will absolutely consider the frequency and severity of the actions you are alleging. You must show that you were specifically targeted, rather than you were just one of many employees who put up with a bad boss. If you are working in a hostile work environment, follow the steps below to ensure you have a solid claim:
- After asking the person to stop the harassing behaviors, make an official, internal complaint. While it is understandable that you may feel as though you could lose your job, lose an upcoming raise or promotion, or be otherwise retaliated against after making such a complaint, you have very clear legal protections in this situation. Under federal law, it is unlawful for an employer to take any sort of punitive action against an individual who files a complaint of harassment or discrimination.
- Next, you must be able to show that management was aware of the discrimination or harassment you were undergoing, and this is where documentation comes in. You must have a thorough record of dates, times, places, and any other pertinent details of the times you reported the harassment to people in your company. Even an informal meeting should be documented by you, as soon as you can, following the meeting, so you will remember the bulk of what was said.
- If there were witnesses to any of the harassment or discriminatory comments or actions you faced at work, make sure you have documentation of their contact details, as well as exactly what they observed—any case becomes exponentially better when there is third-party support.
- Be aware that not all companies fall under federal anti-discrimination laws—companies must have at least 15 employees for claims of discrimination and hostile work environment, or 20 employees if the complaint is age-based.
- If you get no relief after reporting the behaviors to Human Resources or management, it is in your best interests to speak to an experienced Florida employment attorney as quickly as possible. Do not wait to make this very important phone call, and do not worry about legal fees—most attorneys offer a free consultation, and many will work on a contingency fee agreement.
Additional Information About Hostile Work Environments
Documentation for your case could include e-mails from co-workers—or from the harasser—notes, letters or voicemails. Your goal is to show a clear pattern of discrimination and harassment. An increasing number of employees in the United States have been forced to file hostile work environment claims over the past decade or so, along with claims of sexual harassment, and, whether they are happy about it or not, employers have an obligation to ensure no harassment occurs in the work environment. When an employer is notified of sexual harassment or discrimination, that employer must take steps to stop such actions. Employers are also required to ensure all managers are thoroughly trained to recognize harassment and discrimination.
Getting Help from Company IT Managers
Since a significant amount of harassment or discriminatory actions occur through e-mail, social media or other Internet avenues, IT managers may be able to help prevent at least some harassment in the workplace. This is accomplished via strong company Internet usage policies. Some companies even have a firewall in place on all company computers, which prevents employees from accessing any type of sexual content while at work. More and more companies—especially larger companies, are placing such restrictions in place as a method of reducing the number of hostile work environments or sexual harassment claims.
Hostile Work Environment in the State of Florida
Claims of a hostile work environment in the state of Florida can violate federal laws, including the Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the 1967 Age Discrimination in Employment Act, or the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act. While there are a number of types of conduct that could rise to the level of “actionable” harassment, some of those include:
- Verbal insults including name-calling, threats, intimidation, insults, slurs, or the telling of offensive jokes.
- Unwanted physical touching or physical assault (Even something like a boss who stands behind an employee and massages his or her shoulders, after being told by the employee that it makes them uncomfortable).
- Sending or forwarding sexual or otherwise inappropriate jokes or pictures to others in the office which could make them uncomfortable.
In the end, prevention is the best way of eliminating harassment in the workplace. Employees should have clear boundaries set forth which communicate the fact that unwelcome, harassing conduct will not be tolerated. An effective grievance process, along with anti-harassment training for all managers and employees can go a long way toward diminishing the number of hostile work environments or sexual harassment claims a company will have to deal with.
If you are being harassed at work, the very best thing you can do, aside from keeping meticulous notes, is to speak to an experienced Ayo and Iken Florida employment attorney early on in the process. Your attorney will make sure your rights are protected and will work hard for your future.