How to Identify an Illegal Hostile Work Environment and Steps to Prevent it
What is a Hostile Work Environment?
California defines a hostile work environment as a “workplace where inappropriate behavior is severe and pervasive enough to create an abusive and hostile atmosphere for workers.” Oftentimes, the term “hostile work environment” is often associated with sexual harassment. However, it can also encompass other types of workplace discrimination.
Generally, to be considered a victim of a hostile work environment in California, you have to have had exposure to repeated and severe offensive and inappropriate behavior or language by co-workers. A hostile work environment often occurs as a form of retaliation in response to a worker’s reporting of improper conduct, unsafe working environment or complaints of workplace violations.
Classes protected from a hostile work environment under California law are:
- Marital status
- Age (over 40)
- National origin
- Military/veteran status
- Physical or mental disability
- Medical condition or genetic information
- Sex (including sexual orientation, pregnancy, etc.)
Some actions that may create or indicate a hostile work environment are:
- Exposure to offensive language or pornographic materials
- Inappropriate and unwelcome sexual comments or physical touching
- Giving looks and staring in a sexually suggestive manner
- Making offensive remarks about looks, clothing, body parts
- Touching in a way that may make an employee feel uncomfortable
- Telling sexual or lewd jokes and making sexual gestures
- Sending or soliciting sexually suggestive letters, messages or images
Is a Hostile Work Environment Illegal?
Fortunately, hostile work environment discrimination is against California law. In order for the work environment to be unlawful, the conduct must have created an environment that was abusive. A hostile environment at work generally does not create a legal action unless it constitutes a form of discrimination or can be linked to a retaliatory motive.
To determine whether the conduct of a co-worker or a supervisor is sufficiently pervasive to be actionable as a hostile work environment, you must take into account the entirety of the circumstances. The victim must also prove that the employer’s conduct interfered with a reasonable employee’s work performance. The hostility should also be of such a degree that it would by its nature be expected to affect the psychological well-being of a reasonable employee.
To determine if the workplace is hostile, consider the following:
- Context in which the harassing conduct occurred
- The nature of the unwelcome sexual acts or words
- Frequency or total number of the offensive encounters
- Total number of days over which all of the offensive conduct occurred
In determining what constitutes “sufficiently pervasive” harassment, acts of harassment cannot be occasional, isolated, sporadic, or trivial.
How Do I Prove a Hostile Work Environment?
As a victim in a hostile work environment lawsuit, you must prove that you worked in a hostile environment, and provide proof that shows that you were subjected to unwelcome “severe or pervasive” harassment. You must also prove that you were offended or affected by the behavior, and show that your manager or supervisor knew about the hostile working environment and did nothing to prevent or stop it.
Victims of a hostile work environment are encouraged to document every instance of abuse and harassment (including dates and times, involved parties, and how it impacted the employee’s work performance), as well as gather and preserve all available evidence (if possible), such as:
- Recorded communications (texts, emails, voicemails, etc.) that show the abuse or harassment
- Video or audio of the unwelcome conduct (offensive jokes, etc.)
- Names and contact information of any eyewitnesses of the hostile environment and offensive behavior
- Any internal memos or work documents that indicate abuse or harassment occurred
- Responses from your employer to any complaints, especially if the harassment wasn’t taken seriously
Be sure to keep any records of complaints you sent to your employer. Once employers become aware of illegal harassment, then they must take steps to remedy the situation. If you filed a formal harassment complaint with your employer, then it could be evidence they knew of the harassment.
The more evidence victims have of the unwelcome conduct, the easier it is for their employment law attorneys to prove a hostile work environment claim.
Do I Need a Sexual Harassment Attorney?
The EEOC found that 70% of employees sexually harassed at the workplace do not file a complaint. If you feel uncomfortable or unsafe because of a hostile work environment, you should take legal action as soon as possible.
If you believe your workplace is hostile and your employer is not taking steps to prevent harassment or retaliates when you report the harassment, then they should be held accountable. Hiring an employment attorney is the first step toward doing so.
An employment lawyer in Los Angeles can help you understand how this behavior becomes illegal when it occurs frequently or is so severe it creates an offensive or hostile work environment.
Employment Law Attorney in Los Angeles
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