In a legal setup, hostile work environment can be defined as continual harassment on the part of co-workers or bosses based on legally protected characteristics, such as gender, sex, race, physical disability etc.
It is worth knowing that isolated incidents, however insulting or offensive, do not constitute a hostile work environment. The employee may feel aggrieved and abused by such incidents, but continuity of the harassment is the critical factor in legally terming a work environment hostile.
Such isolated incidents can be dealt with by reprimanding the responsible individual, or, if the insult is too offensive or you cannot reprimand the harasser verbally, by lodging an official complaint.
If someone is generically abusive or obnoxious in some way, it doesn't solely constitute a hostile work environment. If the abuse is not directed at someone in particular, it is objectionable, but legal.
If the harassment originates from colleagues, the employee can complain to the management. If the management fails to act on the complaint, or if the harassment continues in spite of an intervention from the management, the workplace can be legally termed hostile.
How to Handle Workplace Harassment
First things first - every action should be analyzed and determined by the level of hostility. If you feel threatened in any way, whether to your physical or mental health, your best option would be to report the matter to the authorities, so that appropriate action can be taken.
On the other hand, it is always better to be vocal if you don't approve of any remark made to you. It may just be a case of differing perceptions about the remark, and the colleague simply may not be aware that the particular remark is offensive to you.
Offhand remarks and simple teasing are not illegal and can usually be amicably resolved once you make it clear that you are not comfortable with it.
Most companies and workplaces have strict policies dealing with workplace harassment. However, if the management fails to act on time, you can sue the organization. But keep in mind, a successful lawsuit not only depends on how inappropriately the management reacted, but it also depends on how you act.
If you respond in a hostile manner or act brashly, then the chances of your lawsuit being successful are slim. Remember that the employee's behavior will be scrutinized just as closely as the employer's behavior in the eyes of law.
If your employer is forcing you into quitting by creating such an environment, then the wise thing to do is to hold on to your job. Start by complaining about the concerned employer to the upper-level management. What's more, there are various governmental agencies that counsel and help people suffering from discrimination in the workplace.
Factors Established When Filing a Suit
An employee looking to file a workplace harassment lawsuit must be able to establish these facts:
- He or she has been continually subjected to act(s) of harassment.
- He or she belongs to some protected class.
- The harassment was solely based on characteristics related to the protected class.
- The harassment affected the terms, conditions or privileges of employment. E.g. threats of demotion, dismissal, etc.
- The employer knew of the harassment and failed or refused to take any counteractions.
The harassment contributing to the hostility of the workplace must be pervasive and severe. An objectionable working environment must be objectively and subjectively offensive. Whether the environment is hostile entirely depends on the circumstances, mainly focusing on issues like severity, frequency and degree.