Many employees would probably describe their work environment as “hostile” simply because it is unpleasant. However, there is a standard for when a workplace actually becomes hostile under the law.
In order for a workplace environment to meet the legal definition of “hostile,” the following must occur:
- The employee must belong to a statutorily protected class
- The employee must have been subjected to harassment because they were or were believed to be part of the protected class
- The harassment was severe, widespread, or persistent
- The harassment unreasonably interfered with the employee’s work performance by creating an intimidating, hostile, or offensive work environment
- A supervisor with authority over the employee engaged in the conduct OR the employer and/or supervisor should have known about the conduct and corrected it
The work environment must be hostile from the perspective of a “reasonable person” standard, i.e. if the employee personally believes the work environment to be hostile, but no reasonable person would agree, then the employee cannot bring a claim.
A key part of the hostile work environment claim is the first bullet point – that the employee has to be part of a protected class. This is what separates merely an annoying or unpleasant work environment that many people may experience with one that is considered hostile under the law.
The U.S. Supreme Court states that whether an environment is hostile “can be determined only by looking at all the circumstances. These may include the frequency of the discriminatory conduct; its severity; whether it is physically threatening or humiliating, or a mere offensive utterance; and whether it unreasonably interferes with an employee’s work performance.” (Harris v. Forklift Systems, Inc. (1993) 510 U.S. 17, 23.)
The two main types of cases brought under hostile work environment laws are for harassment based on gender and race. Both of these classes are protected by California law (Fair Housing and Employment Act) and federal law (Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964). In addition, it can also be based on age, disability, or religion.
Because there are both state and federal laws on this issue, it is important that you seek legal counsel to assist you with any possible claim. There are different methods for pursuing a claim based on whether you are a state or federal employee, and which agency you choose to file with. For instance, if you file a claim with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and you are a federal employee, you only have 45 days to file your claim, while other employees have 180 days. If you choose to file with the California Department of Fair Employment & Housing (DFEH), you have one year from the date of the last act of harassment.