While many people use the term “hostile work environment,” there is a big difference between what it means legally and what it means colloquially. Legally, there is a gulf between experiencing unpleasantness at work, and having a cause of action under which you can bring suit. It is important to understand the difference, so that you can be in the best position possible if you have to experience such an unpleasant situation.
An Element of Discrimination
The first and most important thing to understand about hostile work environment claims is that they must have a basis in either state or federal anti-discrimination law. In other words, there must be an element of discrimination based on a protected characteristic involved. If your manager or superior verbally abuses you because they believe you made a mistake, or because they simply dislike you, it may be a matter for your human resources department, but not for an attorney. However, if you are subjected to verbal abuse or other harassment because, for example, you have a disability, then you may have a case – both South Carolina state law and the federal Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) prohibit discrimination and mistreatment based on disability.
Be advised that as of this writing, neither South Carolina state law nor federal anti-discrimination currently covers members of the LGBTQ community. Thus, hostile work environment claims based on sexual orientation discrimination will almost certainly be dismissed if filed in the state, as there is no law to support it.
“Severe & Pervasive Conduct”
The benchmark that can support a hostile work environment claim is whether or not your employer (or their representative) created an “intimidating, hostile or abusive” work environment and/or your continued employment was conditioned on accepting that conduct. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission lays out certain actions that would contribute to a hostile work environment, including offensive jokes, threats, physical assaults, and more. Isolated incidents do not equal a hostile work environment, unless the conduct is extremely egregious and shocking. However, while the incidents must be widespread, the targets do not have to be. A person does not have to be directly targeted by the harassment for it to affect them, and thus for them to have a legal cause of action.
An employer may only avoid liability for a hostile work environment claim in three ways, besides the plaintiff simply failing to prove their claim. The first is by proving that any offensive conduct was not targeted at a plaintiff for any reason, or that it was neither severe nor pervasive. The second is to show that the employer immediately and actively tried to stop the offensive behavior. The third is to show that the plaintiff did not take advantage of any offered preventative from the employer. If none of these are applicable, it is more likely than not that the plaintiff will prevail.
Seek Experienced Legal Advice
Having to contend with a work environment in which you are mistreated can be demoralizing, regardless of why it may be happening. It is in your best interests to see whether or not you may be entitled to compensation. Attorney A. Christopher Potts of Hitchcock & Potts has years of experience in fighting for people’s rights to be treated with dignity and respect. Contact the office today via our website, or via phone at 843-577-5000, to discuss your options.