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What Is a Hostile Work Environment?

A hostile work environment is a form of discrimination that can manifest in many forms, including bullying, harassment, and abuse. Helping Survivors provides informational resources to keep survivors of sexual assault and harassment informed of their rights. We also connect victims with skilled sexual assault and harassment attorneys who handle hostile work environment lawsuits head-on, fighting for victims of workplace harassment to receive the justice and compensation they deserve.

Your workplace should be somewhere you feel safe and comfortable so you can do your job effectively. Most people enter the workplace expecting to build a healthy rapport with their coworkers, bolster their professional growth, and flourish in their careers.

Unfortunately, it’s not uncommon for a pattern of discriminatory behavior in the workplace to give rise to a hostile environment. The place where you’re supposed to feel competent, capable, and professional may become somewhere you feel degraded, bullied, or harassed due to discrimination based on protected characteristics like your race or sex. A hostile work environment can impact your mental health, your self-esteem, and, in extreme cases, your physical safety. Survivors of hostile work environment harassment often feel they are being pushed out of their jobs due to the discriminatory abuse in the workplace.

Learn about the law governing hostile work environments, including examples of behavior that may create them. Also, discover what you should do, what your legal options are, and who to contact if you’ve experienced a hostile work environment.

If you believe you have been the victim of a hostile workplace environment, Helping Survivors can connect you with attorneys to advise you about your rights and options.

What Is a Hostile Work Environment?

Under federal law, a hostile work environment is a form of workplace discrimination targeting employees based on protected characteristics like race, sex, or religion. 

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission defines a hostile work environment as a pattern of harassing conduct “severe or pervasive enough to create a work environment that a reasonable person would consider intimidating, hostile, or abusive.”

Co-workers and managers are most commonly responsible for hostile work environments. However, hostile environments may result from conduct by others, including the employer’s agents, supervisors in other areas, and even non-employees. If an employee experiences regular harassment in the course of employment, it may constitute a hostile work environment, even if the perpetrator doesn’t work directly with the victim.

Importantly, petty insults, slight annoyances, and isolated incidents are usually insufficient to constitute a hostile work environment unless the behavior is extremely severe. A hostile work environment typically arises from a series of discriminatory incidents, which may occur over weeks, months, or even years.

Last Date Modified
February 28, 2024
Content Reviewed By:

Kathryn Kosmides
Managing Director | Helping Survivors

Examples of Hostile Work Environment Behavior

Behavior constituting a hostile work environment can take many forms. Some examples of these behaviors include:

What To Do if You Believe You Are the Victim of a Hostile Work Environment

If you have been subjected to hostile work environment bullying or other harassment, there are several steps you can take to ensure the harassment is documented and reported.

First, keep a record of harassment or abuse as it occurs. Record the date of the incident, the details of what happened, the names of the people involved, and any workplace policies you know were violated. It may also be helpful to note where you were when the incident occurred and the names of any possible witnesses who could corroborate your story. 

If you feel safe doing so, tell the harasser to stop. The best way to do this is typically in writing via email, text message, or letter, so you have a written record of notifying the perpetrator that you considered the behavior hostile and wanted it to stop. If you want to communicate in person, bring a witness who can confirm you directly addressed the inappropriate behavior with the perpetrator.

Finally, report the harassment to your employer so they may investigate the conduct and address it internally. Making your employer aware of the harassment is critical. If your employer doesn’t take appropriate action to stop the harassment, you will have evidence they knew about it. 

Once you have reported the behavior, cooperate with your employer’s internal investigation by providing records of hostile work environment bullying. 

If your employer fails to take action, you may consider filing a discrimination charge with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. You may do this in person at an EEOC office in your state, via a signed letter sent to your state’s EEOC office, or online through the EEOC’s reporting portal. 

The EEOC has time limits for filing harassment and discrimination complaints. Typically, the limit is 180 days from when the discrimination occurred unless your state has laws stating otherwise.

The EEOC will investigate your charge. It may take action against the employer if it finds sufficient evidence of a hostile work environment. Otherwise, it will issue a Notice of Right to Sue, allowing you to file a civil lawsuit in court.

Contacting a Hostile Work Environment Attorney

If you have been subjected to harassment or a hostile work environment in the workplace based on discrimination over your gender, sexual orientation, race, ethnicity, religion, or other protected trait, you have the right to take legal action. 

To learn more about your legal options, consult an employment attorney as soon as possible. An attorney can assess your case and explain your legal options. Helping Survivors can connect you with an experienced and skilled attorney in your state who handles hostile work environment cases.

Common Legal Processes for Handling a Hostile Work Environment

The three most common legal processes for addressing hostile work environment harassment are administrative proceedings, criminal proceedings, and civil lawsuits. No matter what type of legal action you pursue, an employment attorney can advocate for you and protect your rights.

Administrative Proceedings

An administrative proceeding involves reporting harassment to your employer or a government organization, such as the EEOC or a state Fair Employment Practices Agency. These processes and procedures may vary depending on your employer and the nature of the harassment. An attorney can advise you on how to proceed with your administrative claim.

Criminal Proceedings

If you have been the victim of a crime like assault, you can report the offense to the police. If there is enough evidence to charge the perpetrator with a crime, a prosecutor’s office may press criminal charges.

Civil Lawsuits

Finally, you may wish to file a civil lawsuit against the harassing party. In some cases, your employer may also be legally liable if they knew about the hostile work environment but did not take sufficient action to stop it. 

In most cases, you must first receive authorization to sue from the EEOC before filing a lawsuit against your employer or an individual employee. You can hire an attorney to represent you directly in a civil lawsuit, and they will be able to gather evidence, file your lawsuit on time, and advocate for your best interest.

Recent Successful Hostile Work Environment Cases

Hostile work environments are emotionally and psychologically draining. Many victims wish to move on without taking further action because lawsuits can add to that stress. However, many recent hostile work environment suits have resulted in substantial financial damages awarded to plaintiffs. Lawsuits can hold employers accountable for enabling harassment and bullying while providing victims compensation to make them whole.

For instance, consider these recent high-profile cases:

While Helping Survivors does not guarantee any specific legal result, hostile work environment lawsuits can lead to significant wins for victims of discrimination-based harassment. An attorney can advise you about whether you may have a strong case against your employer or colleagues.

If you have been the victim of a hostile work environment, you don’t have to suffer alone. Helping Survivors has many resources available and can connect you with a lawyer to advise you about your rights.

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