What is a Hostile Work Environment?
A hostile work environment means miserable, unproductive employees.
Harassment can be oral and/or physical, often involving rude behavior, unwanted advances or inappropriate touching. To be considered “hostile” the situation must be so difficult in your workplace that it substantially affects your ability to do your job.
It can also be illegal.
Most companies have specific policies prohibiting harassment in the workplace for any reason. A good employment law attorney can make you aware of what your legal options are, and what responsibility your company has to do to stop the harassment.
Generally, the first thing any victim of harassment in the workplace should do is get educated. What is my employer’s policy about harassment in the workplace? Any good policy should tell you exactly what to do if you are in a hostile environment because of harassment. At a minimum, the policy should:
- Tell you exactly who at the company you should report the harassment to.
- Provide alternative people to whom you should report harassment, especially in the event the harasser is in a supervisory role over the employee.
- Prohibit retaliation against an employee who reports harassment in the workplace.
If the company has no such policy, then use your own knowledge of the company to report your problem to someone in authority – an owner, officer, or even a manager.
Give Your Employer the Chance to Solve the Issue
The second thing a victim should do is give the company a chance to solve their harassment issues and eliminate the hostile environment.
Do what the policy says – go and report the harassment to the appropriate person. If you are not taken seriously, report it again in writing. Give that person a chance to stop the harassment. If that fails and the harassment continues, you may have legal recourse against both the harasser and the company. Special rules apply if the harasser has supervisory authority over you and uses that authority to negatively impact your job and, under those circumstances, the company may automatically be liable.
If the harassment violates a law, your company may be liable because it failed to solve the problem even after you gave the right person a chance to do so.
State laws vary, but, regardless of the company’s policies, only certain types of harassment are actually prohibited under federal laws. Federal law prohibits harassment in the workplace based on sex, race, age, disability, citizenship, national origin, genetic information (OK, this is a rare one – but you would be amazed at what knowledge company-paid health insurance plans have about your health), religion, and veteran status.
Unfortunately, just being a big jerk in the workplace is not actually illegal conduct in many states, leaving an employee in a hostile environment with limited or no legal options if the employer will not solve the problem.
Get the Guidance You Need
At any point in the process, it is a good idea to contact an experienced employment law attorney to guide you down the correct path to solve your problem. Your attorney will educate you about what legal recourse you might have outside your company.
Generally, you should give your employer a chance to solve the problem, and know what legal help you have outside your company. Unwanted touching, advances, and rude behavior have no place in a productive, successful work environment.