What factors determine a hostile workplace environment?

A hostile work environment is created when an employee feels uncomfortable or scared to be in his or her work space due to offensive behavior, intimidation or abuse by a coworker or superior. 

To determine whether a work environment is hostile, EEOC investigators look at the following factors. It is not, however, just one of these factors that sways a workplace harassment case. An assessment is made based upon the totality of the circumstances. The objective severity of harassment is judged from the perspective of a reasonable person in the plaintiff's position, considering all of the circumstances.

  1. Whether the conduct was verbal or physical or both; 
  2. How frequently it was repeated; 
  3. Whether the conduct was hostile or patently offensive; 
  4. Whether the alleged harasser was a co-worker or supervisor; 
  5. Whether others joined in perpetrating the harassment; 
  6. Whether the harassment was directed at more than one individual; and 
  7. What happened when senior management became aware of the situation—such as whether the offensive conduct was dealt with and immediately ended or condoned. 

If an employee is experiencing a hostile work environment, they can file a lawsuit against their harasser, whether it be a boss or a peer. When considering a lawsuit there are several legal elements that must be considered, including:

  • Does the victim belong to a protected class based on race, religion, ethnicity, age, sex or disability?
  • Was the harassment directly related to the victim being of one of these protected classes? 
  • Did the employer know of and fail to address the harassment?
  • Did the harassment involve threats of altering employment status? (Such as requesting sexual favors in exchange for a promotion). 
  • Was the harassment ongoing or did it happen only once?

An attorney will consider these elements for each individual case. This type of legal claim is very much based on the specific circumstances involved and there is no one test to determine if a hostile situation was created. Generally, a hostile work environment can only be proven if the harassment is ongoing and severe, otherwise the issue can be addressed using other legal remedies for sexual harassment. But a hostile work environment claim must be ongoing and offensive to not only the person being harassed, but also subjectively to those considering the legal claim.

If you or someone you know may be experiencing harassment at work, it is important to go to your Human Resources Department as soon as possible to report the abuse. If there is no HR Dept., go to your superior; if it is one of your superiors who is subjecting you to the harassment, go to another who is not involved, even if they are not necessarily your next in command. For a case to be successful, it is critical that there is documented evidence that the problem was reported; having documented the incident or incidents will go a long way when a judge is considering a sexual harassment case - it can be the difference between a large settlement and walking away with nothing after having been forced to leave your job. An attorney can better instruct you on your specific situation, so it is always best to consult an experienced legal professional before moving forward. 

Read more in:

Can my employer retaliate against me for filing a claim with the EEOC?

What is the statute of limitations for sexual harassment claims?