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In today’s Fast Legal Answers series, I’ll be defining and explaining what a “hostile work environment” is. How does it relate to discrimination and protected classes?
I hear this phrase thrown around so much that I think many people don’t actually know what a actually is. After reading this article you will know the legal definition of a hostile work environment, and should have a better idea of what is, and what is not, legally recognized as a hostile work environment.
However, the issue of harassment has become increasingly well known and by fiscal year 2003, 17.6% of the total discrimination charges filed with the EEOC were harassment claims. This makes harassment determinations difficult – not just for courts attempting to apply legal standards – but for human resource professionals and employment law specialists attempting to determine whether actionable harassment has occurred. In deciding how much is enough, courts generally consider "the totality of the circumstances," including: the frequency of the discriminatory conduct, the severity of the conduct, whether the conduct is physically threatening and whether the conduct unreasonably interferes with an employee’s work performance.
Hostile Work Environment For harassment to be actionable under Title VII the offensive conduct must be sufficiently severe or pervasive to alter the conditions of the victim’s employment and create a hostile working environment. No one factor is required in order to find actionable harassment, and there is no precise formula to use when considering these factors.
To illustrate, your boss not liking you because you are fans of rival sports teams, is not actionable discrimination.
For example, a plaintiff in an Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals case alleged that her male supervisor called her at home, told her she was beautiful, made a comment about the "purity" of Indian women, unzipped his pants to tuck in his shirt, touched her on the knee, touched the hem of her dress and touched her jewelry. Generally, when events are concentrated over a finite period of time, the employee’s claim is stronger than when events are scattered over a longer period of months or even years. However, the court found the comments were pervasive enough to allow Santana’s harassment claim to proceed to trial. Alfano claimed a supervisor told her she could not eat carrots, bananas, hot dogs or ice cream on the job because she did so "in a seductive manner." She also complained that a notice was posted that read, "Carrots will not be allowed in the visiting area due to Sgt. Brooks sued the city following an incident of inappropriate touching.
More typically, however, the hostile work environment is created through a variety of incidents.
Some incidents may involve touching, while others are merely comments. Some conduct may be directed at the alleged victim and some may simply occur in his or her presence.
A hostile work environment is really just a specific form of harassment.
The EEOC defines harassment as: unwelcome conduct that is based on race, color, religion, sex (including pregnancy), national origin, age (40 or older), disability or genetic information.