Am I Being Subjected to a Hostile Work Environment?

The phrase “hostile work environment” may bring to mind situations where a supervisor or owner of a business shouts and swears or bullies and otherwise intimidates employees. However, in legal terms, this is not the case. Instead, specific legal criteria must be met for a work environment to meet the legal threshold of "hostile".

Protected Class

The first element of a hostile work environment claim is that the bad conduct is motivated by a particular characteristic that is protected by law. For example, federal law prohibits harassment that is made on the basis of sex, color, race, religion, age, disability, genetic information, or national origin. State laws may provide more protections, such as height, weight or a more expanded definition of age, which the federal law defines as employees age 40 or older.

Effect on Job

The next legal element of a hostile work environment claim is to show that the bad conduct materially altered the terms and conditions of employment. Creating a hostile work environment is one form of
harassment that the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission investigates.

A hostile work environment is formed when conduct rises to the level that it would make a work environment so intimidating, hostile or offensive that a reasonable person would not be able to bear it. This typically requires a showing that the conduct was so severe or persistent that it materially altered the employee’s working conditions, terms of employment or reasonable expectations of the work environment. Isolated minor incidents or annoyances often do not rise to this level.


The more severe the bad conduct, the less likely that the victim has to show that the conduct occurred over a long period of time. The conduct must severely impact the employee’s work. It may be conduct that interferes with the victim’s career progress, such as the employee not receiving a favorable job assignment or promotion due to the hostile behavior or reporting such behavior.


Continued bad conduct that endures over time can create a claim for a hostile work environment. If an employee documents incidences and reports such incidences, this may help establish the necessary longevity of the conduct to support a hostile work environment claim.

Employer Liability

The employer can be found liable for creating or allowing a hostile work environment in certain circumstances. This is the case when the business owner or a supervisor is the culprit of such action. The EEOC reports that a business is automatically found liable if the harassment resulted in a negative employment action, such as the failure to hire or promote, termination or loss of wages.

Another way that the employer can be found liable is if the employer knew about the bad conduct of another individual – such as a co-worker, customer or client – and failed to take reasonable steps to stop this behavior. The EEOC states that an employer can only avoid liability of a hostile work environment claim if it can prove that it took reasonable steps to prevent and quickly correct the bad behavior and that the employee unreasonably failed to take advantage of preventative or corrective measures that the employer provided.

Employers are liable for harassment if it knew or should have known about harassment but yet failed to take appropriate action that could have corrected the behavior.


Few cases provide conclusive proof that harassment or the creation of a hostile work environment took place. Instead, many claims require the EEOC to review the entire record and nature of the business. In fact, this agency investigates claims on a case-by-case basis.

A review will focus on the conduct and speech of the parties involved. To rise to the level of a cognizable claim, conduct and speech may be offensive, abusive or intimidating, whether the speaker says that he or she is joking or not. The fact finder reviews whether a reasonable person would have found such behavior or speech offensive and unbearable. The length of time that such conduct or speech was made is relevant to this determination.

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Disclaimer: Every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this publication at the time it was written. It is not intended to provide legal advice or suggest a guaranteed outcome as individual situations will differ and the law may have changed since publication. Readers considering legal action should consult with an experienced lawyer to understand current laws they may affect a case.

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