Hostile Work Environment: A Common Misunderstanding

Friend: My boss is kind of a jerk, and he’s breaking the law.
Me: Really? How?
Friend: He makes this place a hostile work environment.
Me: So he’s discriminating against others illegally?
Friend: Well, no, but he makes it uncomfortable to work there. He’s unpleasant, angry, and unpredictable.

I had this exchange with a good friend of mine recently, and the person was so convincing in the discussion that I had to go and double check the definition of “hostile work environment” one more time to be sure I was correct. Thankfully I was, but I thought it would be a good reminder to share the key pieces of the law that applies to that specific type of discrimination here. Some of us deal with these types of employee relations and compliance issues regularly enough that we don’t need a reminder, but if we’re not consistently facing issues it’s easy for the actual legal terms to become a bit hazy.

What is a Hostile Work Environment?

In laymen’s terms, it’s an environment where a reasonable person cannot carry out the functions of their job due to some form of illegal discrimination that is occurring. Remember, all discrimination is not bad.

If you went to a restaurant and they treated you poorly, the next time you’re considering a night out on the town you’ll discriminate against that restaurant by not selecting them.

That word has taken on some baggage in recent years, but you should discriminate on a daily basis as long as those decisions are based on legal factors –performance, seniority, etc. Sometimes managers are worried about treating individuals differently at work, but as long as they are doing it for work-related reasons, there should be no need for fear.

In order to qualify as a hostile work environment, the discriminatory behavior needs to be illegal, and we’re all pretty familiar with the categories that are protected under the law. And just in case you need a refresher on that, I have included the actual verbiage from the EEOC below.

What the EEOC says about a Hostile Work Environment

Harassment is a form of employment discrimination that violates Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967, (ADEA), and the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, (ADA).

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. Source: EEOC

Closing comments

  • Take some time today to talk with some of your managers about what the term “hostile work environment” means and how it can affect the workplace.
  • Do they understand that they can “discriminate” on work-related factors?
  • Are you interested in any other compliance topics? If so, click on my name below to shoot me an email and maybe I can cover that topic in a future article.

Ben Eubanks, Associate HCM Analyst, Brandon Hall Group


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