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Honestly Hostile: What to Do If You’re Under Fire at Work

The term “hostile workplace” often conjures images of verbal abuse and dramatic arguments. However, it applies to a much broader range of problematic behavior than many people realize. In fact, a survey performed by the University of California in 2017 found that nearly one in five employed adults may work in hostile or threatening conditions. 

If so many workers are mistreated, why don’t they take action against their employers? It’s often because employees do not realize that hostile workplaces violate their rights. You may fall into this category if something seems seriously off about your workplace. Here’s what you need to know about hostile workplace laws, how these environments are created, and what you can do to pursue fair treatment at work. 

What Is a Hostile Work Environment?

According to California’s Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA), a hostile work environment occurs when someone in your workplace is subject to harassment by colleagues or supervisors based on a protected characteristic. 

In many cases, the harassment or bullying that leads to these types of environments comes alongside workplace discrimination. However, under FEHA, discriminatory behavior is defined as treating employees differently due to protected categories while performing job-related actions. 

As a result, discrimination is most frequently committed by supervisors and management. In contrast, harassment is committed when it falls outside of the employee’s work duties, so anyone within an organization may commit it. A hostile workplace only coincides with unlawful discrimination when someone with authority over the victim participates. 

What Characterizes Hostile Workplaces

Unlawful harassment is different from simple bullying. A colleague or supervisor who is mean or dislikes another person can make rude jokes or yell at others without necessarily creating a hostile workplace. The defining factor is that a protected characteristic causes hostility. Someone who bullies everyone regardless of race, gender, or religion may make a workplace unpleasant, but they are not violating the law. 

Additionally, only “severe or pervasive” misconduct qualifies to create a hostile workplace. A single incident may be enough to qualify if it is particularly severe, such as a physical assault or a credible threat. However, smaller microaggressions may also accumulate into a hostile situation if they occur often enough for a long time. Examples of negative workplace behaviors include:

  • Slurs or hate speech: Using negative words and phrases related to someone’s race, gender, or religion, even if not directly aimed at that person, can contribute to hostile work environments 
  • Unwanted sexual comments regarding someone’s gender identity or presentation: While compliments and consensual interactions are not a problem, unwanted sexual comments that continue after requesting they stop are a common kind of harassment. 
  • Unwanted physical contact related to racial hairstyles, religious apparel, or gender characteristics: Unwanted contact can quickly escalate to assault, especially if it is related to protected characteristics. 
  • Targeted aggressive behaviors: If a coworker or supervisor is frequently angry with or shouts at people with certain characteristics, they may be committing harassment. 
  • Focused pranks and ridicule: Similarly, if one person or group is frequently subject to unwanted or humiliating comments, teasing, or practical jokes, the perpetrator is likely harassing them. 
  • Quid pro quo sexual harassment: Offering someone better treatment at work for sexual favors is explicitly named as a type of harassment covered under state and federal workplace protection laws. 

If these behaviors stop after one instance or are halted by management after the victim asks for help, they do not constitute workplace harassment. However, they can quickly lead to a hostile work environment if permitted to continue. 

These work environments often form when management or HR turns a blind eye to someone’s behavior. Sometimes, there is a single biased person at the top of the department or organization setting the tone for company culture or demonstrating negative bias against certain classes of people. In others, though, the parties responsible for maintaining a hospitable work environment failed to take action when the first signs of harassment appeared, and the situation spiraled out of control. Regardless of the reason, people experiencing workplace harassment may be able to take legal action if their employer refuses to address the issues. 

How to Get Help If Your Workplace Is Hostile

The first step to addressing harmful behaviors at work is to try to resolve the issue internally. You may talk to the people harassing you directly if you feel comfortable. Otherwise, you should bring it up with your manager or HR. Either way, it’s best practice to use email to bring up your issues. Email establishes a clear paper trail of when and how you tried to get the behavior to stop. 

If the harassment continues and your employer refuses to address it, you may have grounds for legal action. Save copies of your emails and document as many instances of harassment as you can remember. With that information in hand, talk to an experienced workplace discrimination attorney. Your lawyer can help you determine if you have a case, ensure you understand your rights, determine what information and evidence you need to collect, and help you file a legal claim. 

Talk to the Expert Hostile Workplace Attorneys at Le Clerc & Le Clerc LLP

Being trapped in a harmful professional environment can wear you down. However, if you’re being mistreated at work, you can get help. The experienced workplace harassment lawyers at Le Clerc & Le Clerc LLP are dedicated to advocating for the employee rights of clients like you. If you believe you’re facing harassment or a hostile workplace, schedule your free consultation with our San Francisco employment law office today to learn how we can help you take a stand.

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