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 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. You may have up to one year to file your claim, or you may have as little as 45 days. You may choose to file with the Equal Opportunity Commission, or the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing.
It is important to seek the advice of an attorney in order to help you navigate through these requirements and deadlines.
If you think you may have a claim for a hostile work environment, please contact us to discuss your situation.