What is a hostile work environment?

You’ve heard the phrase “hostile work environment,” but how does it apply in terms of the law? If your boss is a jerk, is that enough to make it illegal?

It depends.

Although the dictionary defines hostile as unfriendly or antagonistic, the law’s definition is specific to protected classes.

Workplace harassment

There are different kinds of hostility, from sexual advances and off-color jokes, sharing insensitive photos or emails, obscene gestures and language, and physical touching or comments about appearance. Additional examples include sabotaging work, tampering with equipment, unfair punishment, termination or denial of promotion. And, of course, physical hostility.

Harassment breaks the law when, according to the Department of Labor, it’s unwelcome and is based on a worker’s belonging to a protected class. Within this criteria, it must also be serious enough that “a reasonable person would find [it] hostile or abusive.” Common examples are sexual harassment and racial discrimination.

What is a protected class?

For a workplace to be a hostile environment, it has to be antagonistic in relation to your being of a protected class.

This means you must possess character traits that you are either born with and have no control over (such as race, national origin, age, etc) or constitutionally protected freedoms like religion. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission defines these as race, religion, national origin, color, age, sex, and disability. On the state level, California has additional protections such as sexual orientation.

The hostile work environment

The law requires that a workplace be a safe zone for employees to comfortably perform your duties. If harassment or hostility is based on these traits, there is a violation of the law.

If you are a victim of these conditions, you can seek compensation for wrongful termination and damages, or seek to correct your current work environment. Punishment for the employer includes company fines, internal discipline for offending parties and, for the victim, reimbursement of lost wages and compensation for damages like mental suffering and emotional stress.

A core value of American law is “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” That pursuit includes the right to earn a living. It’s a fundamental right that is constitutionally protected.

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