Describing our jobs as hostile work environments has become almost colloquial, but a truly proving a hostile work environment requires meeting legal benchmarks. Teasing and joking, however unwelcome, do not make a hostile work environment, and yet it can be very difficult to be able to articulate exactly what does. The more evidence you have, the better. Ultimately, however, the definition can be subjective, and it is best to be ready for that.
Behavior Cannot Be Merely Annoying
Many workers tend to think that any behavior that hinders them in performing their job is grounds to allege hostility in the workplace, but this is not the case. A coworker monopolizing one’s time, for example, or loud music playing in the office next to yours is annoying behavior, and might conceivably interfere with your doing your job. However, unpleasantness is only one factor when proving a hostile work environment. The behavior must also be harassing—and harassment in this sense must have a component of malice or discriminatory intent.
The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) describes unlawful harassment (as opposed to merely unpleasant behavior) as incorporating conduct that would be “intimidating, hostile or offensive” to reasonable people, and it also holds that petty or isolated insults or slights do not rise to this level unless the conduct is outrageous in the extreme. The South Carolina Human Affairs Law mirrors this guidance, and thus will generally apply the same standards to the conduct at issue in your case.
While there is no hard and fast definition, there are general criteria which lend themselves to proving a hostile work environment exists if they are present. Perhaps the most important of these factors is showing that the conduct in question is discriminatory toward a person based on a protected characteristic, such as age, race, religion or national origin. A hostility claim fails immediately if it cannot be shown that the offensive conduct is based on a protected characteristic. In other words, if you are being mistreated due to some characteristic which is not protected under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, this particular claim will likely be dismissed.
Another component that can help prove a hostile work environment claim is that it must be severe and pervasive. Usually this means that Human Resources has been contacted or other attempts at stopping the behavior have been tried only to fail. It can also be persuasive to show that the conduct has affected the employee’s job performance or denied them a promotion or bonus. It is also imperative to establish that your employer either knew or should have known about the situation before bringing suit under the South Carolina Human Affairs Law or in federal court. It is not possible, obviously, for an employer to act to stop harassment that they are unaware of. If you do not establish this basis for liability, your case may fail.
Contact A Knowledgeable Attorney
Despite having a good idea of what to look for, establishing a hostile work environment in a legal sense can still be confusing and difficult. Hiring an experienced lawyer can help. Attorney A. Christopher Potts and his Charleston employment law discrimination firm are happy to sit down with you and help suggest a path forward.
Contact us today to set up an initial appointment.