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Hostile Work Environment Claims Are Subtle

Too often, any workplace that is unpleasant for an employee gets referred to as a hostile work environment. In reality, there are specific criteria that a workplace must meet to legally qualify as a hostile work environment. Jokes and teasing may be unwelcome, but unless they rise to a certain threshold, they don’t give an employee grounds to file suit. Hostile work environment claims are subtle and difficult to clarify sometimes, but understanding the criteria can shed some light. 

Specific Criteria Must Be Present

The term “hostile work environment” gets bandied about very often in a colloquial sense, used to mean any kind of environment where unpleasant interactions occur. While unwelcome jokes or bullying behavior should be dealt with by your Human Resources department as quickly as possible, it may not rise to the level of a truly hostile work environment. Hostile work environment claims have certain criteria that must be met in order to prevail with employment authorities.

There are three main criteria for this type of claim:

  • The employee must have been the target of harassment as a result of membership in a protected class.  For example, race, gender, age, or disability as opposed to being harassed for something minor.
  • The harassment was offensive in both a subjective and objective sense. For example, it offended the target and would objectively shock the conscience of the average person.
  • The harassment was sufficiently “severe or pervasive” enough to create the alleged hostile work environment, which is an environment that a reasonable person would consider intimidating or abusive.

The question of whether harassment exists in a certain situation will generally be decided on a case-by-case basis. Courts will weigh factors such as the severity or the frequency of the harassment and make their determination.

The Burden Of Proof Changes

If a plaintiff with a hostile work environment claim can establish these claims against a supervisor, the burden shifts to the employer to prove two points:

  • That they reasonably tried to “prevent and promptly correct” the harassing behavior.
  • That if any corrective opportunities were offered, the employee “unreasonably” failed to avail themselves of any.

Conversely, if the alleged harassment came from a non-supervisory employee, all that has to be established is that the employer knew (or should have known) about the harassment and failed to try and prevent it.

In South Carolina, the Human Affairs Commission (HAC) has jurisdiction over such claims, but be advised that the law follows federal antidiscrimination regulations fairly closely. This means that issues where the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has interpreted case law a certain way, the HAC will generally toe the same line.

For example, until the 2020 ruling in Bostock v Clayton County, the EEOC’s interpretation of sex discrimination law was that gender identity discrimination was irrevocably linked with sex discrimination, even though case law did not necessarily back up that fact. Investigating your specific situation is always a good idea.

Call A South Carolina Employment Discrimination Attorney

Hostile work environment claims are subtle and can be difficult to clarify at times. However, if you believe you’ve been harassed because of a protected characteristic like race, gender, or disability, you may have been experiencing a hostile work environment.

To determine your options with this type of case, calling a South Carolina employment discrimination attorney is a good idea. Attorney A. Christopher Potts and the firm of Hitchcock & Potts have been handling these types of cases for many years and are happy to assist you. Contact our offices to schedule a consultation.

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